Power Within Adversity: A Review of Biddy Mason Speaks Up by Arisa White and Laura Atkins

Heydey. 105 pages. ISBN-13:978-1-59714-403-2

By China Myers

Biddy Mason Speaks Up strikes a balance between vibrant storytelling and harsh historical depiction as it reflects on the cultural and social conditions of mid-1800s slavery era in America. A captivating children’s book, Biddy Mason Speaks Up presents an account of history that is inspirational, sorrowful, and educational. History is not always easy to digest, but understanding the good and the bad is the basis of truth. Authors Arisa White and Laura Atkins bring the reader into the thorny past to witness moments in time where Biddy Mason, a young slave girl, experiences first-hand loss, separation, sorrow and the many elements of an enslaved life, all while holding dear to her inspirational upbringing.

On a cool Sunday morning, seven-year-old Biddy and Granny Ellen tread carefully through the woods. “See those oval-shaped leaves?” Granny points. Biddy rubs the slippery leaves through her fingers.

“We use plantain to make a salve for cuts and slashes we get from work in the fields,” Granny says. She has taken care of Biddy since she was sold away from her mother as a baby.


In the first few sentences of the book, White and Atkins firmly deliver the full spectrum of distressing circumstances: seven-year-old Biddy begins life without her mother and learns from her Granny how to harvest plants for medicine due to stressful work conditions. Yet there is a delicate line of hope embedded in this glimpse into the nurturing relationship between Biddy and her Granny. Coupled with the use of colorful illustrations, this story captures and maintains the reader’s interest. Overall, Biddy Mason Speaks Up is an excellent read for families who want to introduce the history of slavery in the United States to their young children.

The story is masterfully crafted with a rich context of element such as personal strife, social context, and the political climate of the mid-1800s. Woven within each chapter are the micro stories of various people who were intricately connected to Biddy and endured similar misfortune. Readers will be captivated with each fascinating picture of Biddy, and empathize with her struggles and triumphs through each stop of her life.

The book masterfully tells a difficult story by giving the right dose of reality and sharing the intimate feelings of Biddy Mason. Throughout the story, we see traces of Granny’s wisdom and how it impacts and builds an enduring strength within her granddaughter Biddy, despite their status.

“Nature is like an open hand. It gives in abundance,” Granny explains.

We watch Biddy grow up with gripping lessons and enduring love from her Granny; she flourishes into a young woman who demonstrates the same great affection to many others. We feel the family foundation being torn away as we follow along and relive the time when Biddy and her young children are taken away from her Granny.

“It is like someone dies when Biddy and her two daughters are taken from Granny Ellen and the only family she’s known. Granny’s wails follow Biddy…”

This devastating separation is never reunited and the safe haven of Granny’s connection is forever lost. Biddy never forgets her love and often thinks of her Granny, but lives by her example each day. Biddy grows friendships and pours her lessons of healing and love into her own two daughters. Her new placement is a smaller home with a sickly woman who most likely chose Biddy because of her healing skills. Biddy and her family find themselves traveling West by foot to a new home.

“Biddy walks around the shrubs and encounters a Potawatomi woman digging up roots.

They speak through plants - with gestures and signs, with their open hands.

“Wapsepenik,” she says, and shows Biddy the roots and tells her to pound them into a pulp to heal the sores on her feet.”

As time passes, Biddy learns invaluable information about her rights from another slave woman who hears that both of their families may be moving to California – a free state.

“She wonders, Could this be the path to a free life for me and my girls?”

Once in California, Biddy is owned by the Smith Family along with her daughters and another family.

“For now, the freedom Biddy can give her daughters is a walk in the woodlands to pick juniper berries alongside the Santa Ana River.

Smith is still keeping them enslaved. Their labor makes him a successful cattle rancher.”

Biddy finds a connection to a few families who look just like her, but differ in the fact that they are free. One such family who purchased their freedom papers works with Biddy to help actualize her dreams. Her final quest for a life of independence is not easy -- the Smith family decides it would be best to leave California and move to Texas where slavery is legal. Biddy struggles to find a way out, but with help from friends, she brings her case to California court, where her case is recognized by an unbiased judge. In 1856, after a private deliberations between the Smiths and Biddy, Judge Benjamin Hayes grants in favor of Biddy and her entire family for freedom.

This touching story reads like a documentary, detailing harrowing experiences of people that were taken from their homeland of Africa, treated inhumanely and thrust into an unfair life of free labor, abuse, and family separation. It also shows the resilience and the bond developed between many enslaved people toward the youth, the elderly, and the needy. The word ‘family’ was a bond extending beyond blood relations; it resonated on a deeper level, one that united the many souls who needed each other. This family bond was greater than kinship and through it, many people found peace.

“After Judge Haye’s ruling Biddy immediately began working for herself as a midwife and nurse.

For her work, Biddy is now paid in cash, in vegetables or chickens. She saves every cent earned for the home she’ll call her own someday.”

As Biddy adjusts to a life of freedom, the reader watches Biddy’s strength and courage flourish. Biddy enjoys her new life as she works and buys two plots of land in Los Angeles. She becomes one of the first women to own property in Los Angeles and later goes on to be one of the wealthiest people in the city. She remains loyal to her lessons of love and healing from Granny – Biddy always extend an open heart. 


A work that possesses undertones of inspiration that finally bloom into empowerment and freedom, Biddy Mason Speaks Up is a great read for all ages. By reading the true story of Biddy, the reader can learn how great people overcome adversity and how this resilience showers goodness upon future generations.