Sagashus Levingston sneaks up on me at Panera Bread on University Ave. on Madison’s near-west side and I can tell right away she is pretty excited, albeit very tired. Levingston’s life has been crazy as she is in the process of moving for the first time in 11 years and she is just finishing the final touches on her passion – “Infamous Mothers,” her long-awaited book that features stories of inspiring black mothers facing adverse life circumstances.
“I’ve seen many different proofs of the books and I was never satisfied. I just wasn’t ready to release it. My story wasn’t exactly how I wanted it. It took me months to figure that out,” Levingston says. “Infamous Mothers” tells 20 gritty stories of women, including Levingston, who share their downfalls and successes. Taken all together, they disrupt stereotypes around black mothers while focusing on their humanity. “The other women’s stories, I thought, were excellent, I just had to get mine right. And then all of these pieces to this book finally came together at the end and it just felt right. I looked at it, and said, ‘We are ready!’”
The proofs have been sent to the printer for the book, so there is no turning back now. Levingston’s website for “Infamous Mothers” does a good job describing what the book is all about:
We are teen moms, baby mamas, mothers who once sex worked and were addicted to crack. We’re not your average good girls. We are survivors of domestic abuse and sexual trauma. But don’t call us damsels in distress. We are women with moxie and grit – game changers and powerhouses. We did more than go through the belly of hell and survived, we brought something good back. Coming out on the other side as doctors, artists, nurse practitioners, homeowners, counselors, and so much more, we are 20 women who make a difference in this world. Read our stories and witness how.
Levingston’s story is the initial inspiration for all of the great stories in “Infamous Mothers” and for the movement that she has started. She is a single mother of six, social entrepreneur, award-winning educator, cover girl, Ph.D. candidate, hot speaker, and much more. Levingston has overcome so many obstacles in her life to be where she is at today. And she is still overcoming obstacles as we speak. Her coffee table book is her latest triumph and will be available for the first time at A Fund for Women’s annual dinner and fundraiser on Thursday, Oct. 12, at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in which Levingston will be the keynote speaker.
The audience members at the event will be the very first people to hear excerpts from her book and will watch it acted out on stage. These are a collection of deeply personal vignettes by women who’ve experienced trials, tribulations and triumphs.
“What I’m excited about for this event is possibly and potentially being able to help donors visually see and hear what they don’t normally get to see,” says Levingston, who is also the founder of Infamous Mothers, LLC., a social enterprise that focuses on the empowerment of women who mother from the margins of society. “We will actually have the women there at the event and I am excited and privileged to be able to paint a picture for the attendees that they may not normally have where these women are alive and present and important. It makes it that much more real. It will let people know that they are not supporting an idea; they are supporting real people that are connected with other real lives.
“I like the possibility that people will be able to see that what they are doing is not charity, it’s an investment in people to gain the power to really make a difference in this society,” she adds. “I want them to see that they’ve made an investment and they were able to help someone… someone like me, who has become the keynote speaker at a major event.”
The night is simply titled “An Intimate Night with Sagashus Levingston.”
“One of the things that I believe that people appreciate about the work that I do is that I try my best to be honest and transparent and raw,” Levingston says. “A lot of times, that brings about emotions. I’m careful about who I speak to and who I connect to about my work. So, if I’m in a room with y’all, you’re going to hear personal and private things. You’re going to hear things that I’m not necessarily going to address at other venues … because I’m selective that way.
“I feel like the audience at a Fund for Women is going to need to hear some very personal things that night that I’m going to share with them,” she adds.
Launched in 1993 by Madison Community Foundation, A Fund for Women has given more than $1.4 million to nonprofits that support its mission to transform the Madison-area community so that all women and girls thrive.
“A Fund for Women really understands the work that I do. A lot of people that there are connected with I’ve served at those places. It made sense,” she says. “If there was anybody that would be able to report back to funders – that their dollars are going to a good place – I thought I would be a good fit for that because my work is at the intersection of all those things.”
“Sometimes I get tired”
I’ve got my eight-month-old baby, Luna, along for this interview. Well, technically Levingston has Luna; I handed the baby to her when we first greeted each other at Panera Bread and never really thought about getting her back. Levingston has been feeding her and playing with her and entertaining her the whole time that she’s answering my serious interview questions.
“At any point, if you think she’s getting too heavy, you can send her back to me,” I say. And then I ask another interview question.
Levingston hits pause on my current question and rolls her eyes at me. “Wait a second. Can we go back to you asking about her being too heavy? At any point, I have two boys hanging on my shoulders – a 3-year-old hanging here and an another child over here,” the mother of six laughs. “So she’s fine. You do not have to worry about her.”
Levingston uses the break to start asking me all kinds of questions about me and my baby and fatherhood and I start answering before I turn it around and get the interview back on track. Sagashus, you are all the talk right now – Essence Magazine, Brava, headlining events, authoring books, inspiring young women. How do you really feel right now?
“Sometimes I get tired. I have to be honest with you. I feel like I haven’t been taking care of myself, so that’s why I took a month off. From the last day of the [Infamous Mothers] Pop-Up Tour, I’ve been taking a stay-cation,” she says. “I’ve reflected on the work that I’ve done and thought about how I can make it bigger, better, and stronger. How can I better weave together homeschooling combined with the work that I do? How can I be a better partner? How can I be a better mom? But I think the biggest things is: How can I better take care of myself?
“All of these pieces came together to make the book and I’m very happy with it. It just felt right,” she adds. “But I’m tired … I have bags under my eyes. I’ve gained weight. I need to get my haircut. But it’s all been worth it. I feel truly humbled.”
At this point, her six kids do know that her mom is starting to get a little famous. Being featured in this year’s August issue of Essence Magazine was huge.
“That was a big deal for my daughters. It was a magazine they grew up reading. It’s in my mom’s house. So it’s a very iconic, important magazine for us,” Levingston says. “When my kids saw that, along with Brava Magazine, they were like, ‘OK, my mom is doing some things!’
“I personally don’t really feel that way. I’m still thinking about dirty diapers that I might need to pick up on my way out the door or the milk I need to pick up at the store for the kids,” she adds. “So, that’s not me being humbled; that’s my life being hectic every day and sometimes a bit scattered and confused.”
Levingston is working as hard as she does to give her kids the best possible life they can. Levingston was born in Chicago and raised in the area now known as Bronzeville and faced numerous challenges throughout her life including dealing with poverty, molestation, and a very abusive boyfriend, among many other challenges. But that is all history. Today, she’s a University of Wisconsin Ph.D. literature candidate, an author, an entrepreneur, and a huge role model.
Her dissertation is titled Infamous Mothers: Bad Moms Doing Extraordinary Things. While her research focuses primarily on literature, it is informed by theory and criticism from rhetoric, motherhood studies and black feminism. Levingston took a little break from her Ph.D. program to get her book done. “The book can be pre-ordered right now but the first place that it will be physically available will be the Fund for Women annual event,” she says. “There will be some events and book festivals going on in the future, but that will be the first place.”
“I make sense”
While Levingston is certainly an inspiration to her children, there’s no telling how many people she has inspired with the bravery of her vision of “Infamous Mothers.”
“It always surprises me who I’ve inspired. It surprises me because you never have time to think about that part. You’re always thinking about getting the work done. When people tell me, ‘You inspire me!’ I’ll be like ‘Really?’ Cuz I’m so tired.’ It never gets old for me to hear that I inspire people because I’m always still shocked by it,” she says.
But who inspires Sagashus?
“[Former First Lady] Michele Obama inspires me. [Creater of “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy”] Shonda Rhimes is one of my biggest inspirations because she has three children and she is a single mom. [Filmmaker] Ava DuVernay – I like the diversity she brings to television. Here in Madison, I respect the work of Sabrina Madison, Keetra Burnette, Brandi Grayson and I respect my mentor Amy Gannon. These are people who inspire me. They are all doing amazing things. And, of course, my mom.”
Did it surprise you when A Fund for Women came calling and asked you, of all people, to be their keynote?
“Not really. It was a good choice. I make sense,” Levingston laughs. “Here’s why: My work is at the intersections of so many in the city. A lot of time people don’t know the work that I do because I work with vulnerable populations so I don’t announce it. You would never see me at the YMCA or DAIS or the Catalyst Project take a selfie of me or the women I work with because the work we do is intimate and private. I never want the work that I do to seem like a photo-op with them.”
The audience at a Fund for Women is going to be the first to hear excerpts from Levingston’s play which are some very personal stories from women in the book. “They will see some great performances with real actresses. They will be the first people to experience our books,” Levingston says. “They will get some good discussion about the books and my work. It should be a very interesting event.”
They’ve put a rush order on the “Infamous Mothers” to have them ready for the event. On top of the play adaptation of the Infamous Mothers book, a Fund for Women’s annual event will also announce $75,000 in grants to four area nonprofits to support economic empowerment for women and girls.
Levingston’s speech is going to be titled “Intersections.”
“It’s going to talk about what it means to be at the intersection of women’s work in this city. Part of the idea is coming from what it means to be a mom. Part of what it means to be a mom is that you’re sitting at the intersection of so many responsibilities,” she says. “Your identity as a mom is constructed by all of the ways that you are sitting at the intersection of so many things: You’re a referee. You’re a driver. You’re a cook. You’re a breadwinner sometimes. You’re a housewife sometimes. You’re a nurturer all the time.
“I’m very excited about this upcoming A Fund for Women event and, although I’m very tired, I’m excited about everything in my life overall,” Livingston says. “What feels good is that I’m trusting my instincts and intuition and it landed me on my feet.”
Join A Fund for Women for a very special Annual Dinner Thursday, October 12, 5-8 p.m. at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center. A Fund for Women’s special guest will be Sagashus T. Levingston. Register online at madisongives.org/affw2017 or call (608) 232-1763. Tickets are $85 per person ($55 is tax deductible) or $1,000 for a table of 8 ($460 is tax deductible).