Past-Place and Present Moment

Humanities3 MIN READ

Arisa White on telling a slave’s story to the next generation

June 6, 2019

Poet and Assistant Professor of English Arisa White spoke to Colby Magazine about the experience of co-writing Biddy Mason Speaks Up, an exploration of the life of one-time slave, midwife, healer, and civil rights heroine who went to court in 1856 to successfully fight her forced move from California to Texas, a slave state. The book, intended for students grades 4 and up, tells Mason’s story in the context of the time in which she lived.

Arisa White (English), with Laura Atkins Biddy Mason Speaks Up Heyday Books (2019)
Arisa White (English), with Laura Atkins
Biddy Mason Speaks Up
Heyday Books (2019)

“Having to write for a younger audience, I had to distill language in such a way that it stripped me down. I couldn’t use extended metaphors in the ways I most enjoyed, and relied on, as a writer. So everything was distilled and pared down, and there was this vulnerability I had to confront. The wounds of history, of slavery, the treatment of Black bodies, and this country’s legacy of anti-blackness—which is so hard—coupled with all that’s currently going on in the world today.

Writing this book, I’m in a past-place and in this present moment, feeling the pain of that legacy. And I don’t have my complex metaphors, I have to say it plain so young people understand, so they fully grasp it and their intuitive selves can sense it, which means I need to feel it, too.

When we uncover the histories we are a part of, it can make you so sad and so angry. But as a writer, I know I can’t remain in sadness and anger because language doesn’t solely come from there.

You start to see the reiterations of history. You recognize, ‘Oh, god, people are still going through similar situations, getting through and past these narratives of the American Dream, getting through all of the ways in which our minds have been colonized to believe certain bodies deserve certain kinds of legitimacy.’ One of the rewards of working on this book and looking at history through Biddy Mason’s life was breaking through so much ideology to recognize we are constantly in a state of struggle. It may not look the same from different reference points, different points of privilege, and from the bodies we occupy, but the struggle is real.”

A Woman’s Journey in Words

Bridget “Biddy” Mason’s life spanned a crucial time for African Americans. Born into slavery in 1818 on a cotton plantation in Georgia, sold to tenant farmers in Mississippi, and ultimately forced to walk with her owners to free state California, Mason made history when she went to court in 1856 in an unprecedented successful bid to keep from being taken back to a slave state, Texas.

A poet, White took on the task of recounting Mason’s life in words that would be both accessible to an elementary-school reader (though the story will fascinate adults as well) and strike to the heart of this remarkable story. Her simple and powerful language, joined to detailed history of the period, traces this journey, including the night a sheriff takes Mason and her daughters from their owner.

As the wheels take them
from Smith’s scowling face,

Biddy peers into a darkness
as rich as soil. She sees
her freedom growing.