Stereotypes and generalizations are powerful in that they constrict the poor and oppressed to limited and dismal narratives that people — both black and white — innately accept as universal truths. For Sagashus Levingston, a low-income black mother with six children from Chicago, you can go ahead and keep your stereotype to yourself. There’s no telling her what she can’t do. She’s simply not hearing it.
Levingston is far too busy starting a revolution — a movement to transform the way society understands, connects with, values and leverages the potential of black mothers. Her “Infamous Mothers” coffee table book will be a platform that gives voice to the ignored, shunned, alienated black mothers. Mothers who are too frequently spoken for, she says, but rarely invited to speak.
“I am hoping the work we are doing with this coffee table book and all that surrounds it will not only lead to conversations that disrupt stereotypes, I am hoping women gain tools and strategies to overcome challenges,” Levingston tells Madison365. “I am hoping that policy makers read these stories and create policies and laws that include the voices and real lived circumstances of these mothers — as opposed to making laws based on information that reinforces biases. This coffee table book is just a trigger to something much bigger and, hopefully, aids in shifting society in ways that take into account black mothers and their right to full citizenship in this country.”
“Infamous Mothers” showcases 22 inspiring stories of single moms originally form Chicago, eight of whom live in Madison. As Levingston explains at her “Infamous Mothers” website: “We are teen mothers, women with multiple children by multiple men. We are women who smoked crack, prostituted, stripped, and so on. We are your welfare queens and all the things that polite society shuns. But we’re still mothers.”
“The women came from different pockets and different spaces. [They are] folks I’ve known for many years who have been doing amazing things,” Levingston says. “All of the women are originally from Chicago who came to Madison. I feel like Chicago has so much bad things going on with it right now that people need to hear something good coming out of Chicago.”
Levingston is a single mother with six children who has dealt with many different tough issues in her life. But here she is pursuing her Ph.D. in Literature at UW-Madison after earning her master’s degree in African American Studies at UW. She has been in Madison for 10 years and the book is a product of research over that decade. “This all started when I was looking at these two movements happening – the Black Lives Matter movement and the 21st Century Motherhood movement,” she says. “At the intersection of these movements, I noticed that these were two movements that could potentially talk about and address the social issues surrounding black mothering that were not talking about the issues. So, that became my way in.
“In the Black Lives Matter movement – a movement started by three women – you rarely hear about the struggles of women,” she adds. “In the 21st Century Motherhood movement, you rarely heard about mothers who were living outside of respectability. So that became my niche. The question that my research posed in my dissertation was: Can people who live in this space change society? Can they be seen as agents of social change as opposed to agents of pathology?”
Levingston found that in novels and books that she has read that these type of women were never seen this way. “They start out on drugs at the beginning of the novel. By the end, they are off drugs but we don’t see them affecting any change in the public sphere,” Levingston says. “They weren’t changing society. I wanted the ‘part two’ of the story.
“So, I said, ‘Let me go out and find some folks whom I know are doing these things and let’s tell their stories,’” she adds.
“Infamous Mothers” features a new kind of hero that is black, urban and female. The stories are powerful and the images are stunning.
“So many things came into coming up with this idea. I wanted to tell stories of women like me who had unexpected outcomes. I like the idea of beautiful disharmony or dissonance,” Levingston says. “Who would ever imagine a single woman with six children getting a Ph.D.? Who would imagine a woman who was a teen mom becoming a psychiatrist? Who would imagine a woman who an exotic dancer earning a master’s degree?”
Levingston wanted to tell these stories of unexpected outcomes because she felt that so many people desperately need to hear them. “People need to hear and know that where you are right now does not limit you … you are not obligated to stay confined in whatever box it is that you’ve been placed in,” she says. “I wanted to shock people out of their ways of thinking … in a good way.”
The other reason Levingston wanted to write “Infamous Mothers” is to put a human face on what so many white people – even the good, white Madison liberals – commonly and derogatorily refer to as “those people from Chicago.”
“I wanted people to imagine this population as people who are ‘givers’ as opposed to the usual narrative of ‘takers.’ I wanted to challenge people to see this and to show them examples,” she says. “I wanted to give them stories that they just don’t normally get. I wanted to interrupt that one same narrative that we always get.”
After she publishes her coffee table book, Levingston plans on launching nine engaging workshops and nine dynamic classes across three states. Following that Levingston plans on embarking on a 15-city bus tour that will feature a multimedia photography exhibit, an empowering speaking series, and a skills-building workshop series. Through media productions, art exhibits, speaker series, workshops, and classes, she will create opportunities that spark national conversations with “Infamous Mothers.”
The ultimate goal is to have a national 3-day conference with workshops and empowerment sessions.
“A national conference is the perfect way to have a bunch of conversations together,” Levingston says. “If we’re saying that our goal is to change the conversation about black mothering, let’s have a national conversation.”
It all starts with her “Infamous Mothers” Kickstarter. “We have to make that Kickstarter,” Levingston says, tensing up a bit. “We are running low on time!”
Generation after generations of passed-down wealth has given many white people a sizable safety net (some rather large) where they are allowed to make many mistakes in life and still be successful. A poor black mother has no safety net and that means that every small mistake is compounded. That also makes for an extremely stressful and hectic life.
“You have women who are in survival mode constantly. I don’t tell women to get out of survival mode, because that is where they have to be for the time being,” Levingston says. “But I tell them that while they are taking a shower and while they are on a bus ride, can you for a second allow yourself to dream? So many women who come from backgrounds like mine are scared to dream. A lot of women feel like if they dream, they are going to die. They can’t allow themselves to get caught up in dreaming … that’s not for me. I’m just going to focus on the struggle.
“I had to go to therapy to learn how to say that I wanted to own a house because I had been trained that as a black women coming from a particular background that the only thing I was good for was Section 8 [housing]. That’s the only thing I should strive for,” she adds. “Who am I to venture out to something this big? I’m supposed to just want entitlements.”
Caught up in all her work, the recent high-profile shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling threw Levingston into an identity crisis.
“What are you doing with this whole writing a book thing and getting a Ph.D. thing? Women like you in this country are not supposed to do that. Why bother? This is what you’re good for. Stay in your lane so you can stay alive,” Levingston remembers telling herself. “But then I paused and said, ‘No, this is EXACTLY why this work is necessary. If we mobilize a million women to make up their minds that they are not going to stay in their lanes then what type of beauty can come from that? What type of social change can come from that?”
Levingston stresses that this movement has to be a grassroots movement in order to work.
“We are acknowledging that the women themselves are the experts – they are experts in their lives, experts in their struggles, experts in their children, experts in their poverty,” she says. “We are interested in collaboration with people who are now seen as experts, but we don’t want you to be the experts in our lives. We want to tell you that these are our experiences and these are our struggles. I don’t want you treating me as if I have no understanding or as if I’m an imbecile. I actually know a lot about my children, my area, and my life. We want to be treated that way.”
It’s a monkey wrench in the whole “we are your white saviors” mentality that has plagued programs, policy, non-profits and politicians for decades. “Or even the ‘we are your black saviors,’ too,” Levingston says. “It’s really helping people imagine that the teen mom, the baby mama, the women that’s addicted to drugs as people who are at the forefront and the cutting edge of a social movement. These are the women who actually have the power and the grit to make a change. Redirect these moms and let them know that they have something they can fight for.”
With that in mind, Levingston hopes to create a movement where people who work with this population are shifting their perspective and working with them in a way that actually produces true and meaningful collaborations. “Infamous Mothers” is at the center of this all. “If we say that we want to change the conversation and disrupt stereotypes around black mothering, what better medium than a coffee table book that is all about discussion,” she says.
As Levingston looks to lend a hand to thousands of women to reach their full potential in life, she realizes the irony of the fact that as a single mother of six writing a book, starting a movement, and earning her Ph.D., that she is probably shortchanging her own health and well-being. She admits that she has not been taking care of herself like she should.
“I used to work out seven days a week, but I got so overwhelmed that I haven’t seen a gym in forever. That’s one of my goals: To get everything back in order to get back there,” she says. “I have not been taking care of myself the way I should. My nose is running, my head is congested. And it is because I have not been sleeping, eating or working out.
“Women, in general, and definitely, black women are taught that self-care is something we have to earn or deserve,” she adds. “I realize that it is not a privilege but a necessity. What I should have done, and what I will do in the future, is incorporate a self-care plan into the making of a book or a Kickstarter campaign. It’s a must.”
People often ask Levingston how she has managed to accomplish so much in spite of her background and current situation. She doesn’t like that phrasing.
“I don’t say ‘in spite of.’ I tell people I’m doing it all ‘because of,’” Levingston says. “All my life I’ve felt like there has been a sniper on the roof coming to get me and I’ve been a moving target. And I will not be a sitting target for poverty, going back to a violent background, unemployment. I will not be a sitting target for going back to generational poverty and curses. I will constantly move move move move until I get my family out of this situation. And that’s what happened.”
Levingston is extremely comfortable with debunking age-old stereotypes and defying the odds. She hopes to lead other black mothers into the same mindset.
“I want to create a grassroots movement where women in poverty and marginalized women throughout the country develop a vision and strategies and skill sets to move towards that vision … where they become experts on their own mothering and they are able to own their own mothering,” she says. “I want women who are successful – the psychiatrists, the doctors, the lawyers, the amazing moms — who come from this population who were once teen parents on drugs … I want them to come out of the closet. As opposed to them having to choose one life or the other. I want them to start telling their stories whole and unprocessed so that they can inspire women.
“How do we revolutionize the mothering experience? And in doing so, how do we fight for our own humanity?, she adds. “Because once we have these kids, it’s like we have no more identity. I’m like ‘No, I’m still a WHOLE person.’ I’m hoping that we can bring the humanity back to mothers … or acknowledge these women’s humanity and stories, and build from there.”