While you may or may not understand poverty or what it means to be black, many of you understand sexual trauma, feeling unworthy, mental health. You also understand what it means to tell someone to kiss your ass after they have written you off. You understand the sense of accomplishment that comes with proving someone wrong.
I hadn’t slept. By the time I stepped up to the microphone to deliver that speech in front of 80,000 people, I had been awake for over 30 hours. I was anxious. So much was going on in my life. Bills were months behind. The engine in a car that was about to be repossessed had given out. Deadlines for the book needed to be met. My toddler, after a long night’s nap, was up and climbing on my shoulders; it was 4 am. My man and I were on uncertain terms.
So much was weighing on me. I found myself alternating between crying, rocking and praying. And then there was the speech.
Not long after the election, I was contacted and asked to deliver a speech at the Women’s March. In the frenzy of all I had on my plate, I said yes--not fully understanding what I was agreeing to.
Everything was just yes. “You want to come speak at our summit?” Yes. “You want to run a workshop at our staff meeting?” Yes. “You want to be a guest on our radio show?” Yes. “You want to come speak at the Women’s March?” Yes.
I had no idea what it was. After agreeing to it, I started hearing talk about it everywhere. How it was a Million Woman’s March, initially. And then, because of backlash from black women, how it was changed to the Women’s March. I read that it was a march against Trump, which intimidated me. All I could imagine was being required to stand on some stage spewing hate with spittle and foam coming from my mouth. That wasn’t me. I didn't want it to become me. And then I read the national agenda. I read the unity principles, the mission and vision. I was sold.
So I started writing, just to discover how little I knew. My perspective was limited. I needed more information.
I polled my over 1,300 friends on Facebook. I asked random people on the street what was important to them. I made phone calls. I surveyed people I met with for business. I read blog posts from black women who were not attending the march. I listened to them on Facebook Live. I had conversations. So many different thoughts to manage, the competing ideas, the extremes...and then there was the time constraint. I had FIVE minutes or less--the preference was on the “or less” part. A lot had to be accomplished that day. People didn't need to be standing in the cold listening to long-winded speeches. I got it. So taking into consideration all that I had--the messages, the blogs, the videos, the time constraints, my own limitations of not being a politician, my humanities wheelhouse (I'm a literature major), my audience, myself--I started back writing.
It was Saturday morning, the day of the March. And I had no ending. But more than that, I had no speech. I had the speech, but it wasn’t in my hand. The printer was out of ink that I couldn’t afford. Six weeks earlier, I asked my guy to buy a new cartridge. He dallied around and never did. We are both owners of new startups. Money is an issue. If it came down to putting gas in the car, buying a pack of cigarettes, buying some food or buying ink, ink was sacrificed. So there I was, six weeks later, still inkless and now no ending. Geez. No ending.
I went to the campus library hoping to print the speech--and to complete it. I sat down clueless about how to finish. I played with a couple of finales. I even asked strangers for their input. And just when I felt I was closing in on something good--with about 20 minutes left before the actual March was to begin--the inevitable happens. I pressed too many buttons in the wrong combination, and somehow an army full of strange characters invaded my words...our words.
Diamonds, hearts, question marks were everywhere in no recognizable pattern. My work had become unrecognizable.
Of course, this had to happen. In the same way that, on the day I graduated with my bachelor’s, my eyebrow got shaved off, and my hairstyle was left unfinished until the final moments (my braider had ran off to drink or smoke or fight--or all three)...the same way my heel had to break. It was just the process. So there I was, broken-heeled, one eye-browed, last-minute-haired hobbling across that stage--a hot, beautiful, accomplished mess. A perfect mirror of my life. And there I was again--10 years later--in the last minutes before it was time to deliver a speech that was originally intended for 8,000--then 17,000--trying to pull it together.
A hot, beautiful, accomplished mess.
Seven minutes left now. Less diamonds, less hearts, less question marks, but still less than perfect. Still no hard copy. Still no resolved ending.
Two minutes left...It was now or never.
I left the library, found some organizers, and allowed them to usher me to my fate. How in the hell was I going to pull this off? I was just going to have to read from my phone. The less than perfect version was saved in Google Drive. I had practiced enough to be able to fill in any gaps. The words had become a part of me.
I could do it.
Granted, I needed my phone not to die and my data to not run out. Granted, the ending was new and uncertain. But it really was now or never. And it had to just be now. In front of all these people.
I have always been bad with estimating and sizing things up--always overestimating...sometimes under. Numbers are hard for me. But even still, something about this just didn’t feel like 8,000 or even 17,000 people. As I stood on the sidelines waiting nervously to give this five-minute talk, frantically asking random people about how I should end--I kept thinking, “This is a huge 17,000.” From the sidelines, it seemed huge. Marching with them and then running alongside and then outside of them, it seemed so huge. To stand in front of them, it was breathtaking. So this is what 17,000 people look like? A beautiful picture of unity--overwhelming, unimaginable. The tears came involuntarily. Lord, just please don’t let the ugly cry show up. I kept thinking, “Pull yourself together before it’s too late.” Besides, I only had five minutes, and I didn’t budget time for tears.
But crying was inevitable. It took so much for me to show up. I'm broke and black and female...a single mother. It just takes more. It's more fights with dirty laundry. It's dealing with more attitudes from more hormonal, pubescent teens. It's more bad credit, more slammed doors, more frustration. It's more impostor syndrome, more questions, more doubts. It's more commitment: If I don't show up, the embodiment of unlikely extremes--black, baldheaded, single mother of six children by four fathers...PhD Candidate, entrepreneur, woman--who will? If I don't show up vulnerable, who will? Who will inspire women like me--the baby mamas, the single mothers, the women living outside of "respectability"? The uncertainty of these questions meant that I had to show up. So I did, and it was beautiful. The unity, the love, the peace, it was all so beautiful, so humbling.
And then a pang of guilt came over me. As beautiful as all of it was, I was going to begin with some sobering truths. I only had five minutes. No time to explain, back paddle or give context--just the speech, just the truths, just the interruption of all those good feelings. I was apologetic for what I was about to do--not for the words I needed to say, but for the interruption I was about to make. Maybe the tears was about that, too--they were about the fact that I was going to be the party pooper who showed up with these concerns and questions and an unresolved ending that did not feel good, an interruption of warmth and fuzziness.
So I rocked. I cried. And my prayer became, "Lord, just give me a chance to make it beyond these first lines. Let them hear me out." I was going somewhere, and I needed them to let me get there--they did.
I don’t know if they, like me, just trusted the process or if they were just blindsided and dazed by such an unexpected opening. Whatever happened, we made it through, together--all 80,000 of us--a huge 17K.
And then it was over. As quickly as the tears and the spades and the diamonds and the interruption of good feelings with sobering truths came, it all ended--the tears, the spades, the diamonds, the interruption...the sobering truths. My time was up. The speech was over.
I walked back to my friend's car, nauseous and tired and dry mouthed. It had been over 30 hours since I slept. The bills were still behind. My man and I were still uncertain. Book deadlines were still waiting to be met. And I was finally about to get a little bit of sleep.
It was just the process.
Where and how do I enter this space? The expectation is for me to stand here and deliver a speech that highlights the ways in which white women failed this country on November 8, 2016. Some expect me to say, “While you, white women, were driving around with bumper stickers saying 'I'm with her,' 94% of black women and 63% of Latina women who voted were at the polls VOTING for her. Only 47% of you showed up.” I am suppose to ask, “Where were the rest of you?” For some, the expectation is for me to tell you how much we don’t trust you. How black and brown women are tired of cleaning up your messes just to be thrown out like trash and dismissed after the work has been done. Others want this speech to be about our refusal to form alliances with you until you apologize for historically putting your own needs and wants ahead of ours and other women’s--and for your role in oppressing the marginalized. But to ask me to do this is to ask me to step out of character and to be someone I am not. There are for better women who are far more qualified to have that conversation with you and to give that speech. So today, right now, what I have to offer you is me. I show up as a woman in a space of women. I show up vulnerable.
Today, I am standing at the intersection of many identities: black, bald-headed, full-figured, single mother of six children, four different fathers, poor…PhD candidate, entrepreneur…woman. Which one shall I channel for this occasion? Which part of me is welcomed here? Who shall I evoke? Who shall I leave behind? And what will my choice cost me? Which one of me doesn’t need health care, an equal and sustainable wage, clean air and water? To ask me to choose is a trick question. It’s to vote against myself. It’s to amputate parts of me in favor of an agenda that is not interested in all of me. That is unwise.
So, on this day, I make the choice to stand here: black, bald headed, full figured, single mother of six by four, poor…PhD candidate…entrepreneur…woman. And I give you all of me because it’s all I have to give.
I tell you this very personal decision because any good feminist knows that the personal is ALWAYS political. That means you, like me, are standing here at the intersection of many identities—all shaped and influenced by race, class, sexuality, ability. Which parts do we amputate? Which feminists do we promote here today: whites, blacks, Latinas… Who do we leave behind—feminist men, Muslims, Asians, members of the LGBTQUIA community? And what will our choices cost us? Who here does not need health care, an equal and sustainable wage, clean air and water? Are these trick questions? To choose one identity over the other will we in fact be voting against ourselves, against all women? Will we be amputating parts of a collective right to equality and justice, the right to overthrow oppression? And if so, we have to ask ourselves whose agenda are we serving if it isn’t recognizing all of us? And is that wise?
I agree that the measure of a society is how it treats its women and girls. But I believe that one of the best measures of a society is how it treats those women and girls most marginalized—teen moms, women on drugs, sex workers, women and girls experiencing homelessness, impoverished women, single mothers, women in low-income housing, women on welfare, women of color, women with mental and physical health challenges, women experiencing domestic abuse...victims of rape.
I believe that a healthy society is one in which those at the center screams in agony when those furthest away are cut. It hurts when they hurt. It cries when they cry. And it moves and acts on their behalves. Equally and more importantly, it is invested in making sure they have the tools and resources to act on their own behalves. And I believe this because I understand that most things—if not all things—in life are only as strong as its most vulnerable parts. And what I know, standing here at the intersection of so many identities, is that contrary to what we’d like to believe, at any given point pieces of us are always on the fringes. And if that’s not the case now, it’s only a matter of time. Your privilege will not always protect you. It will not keep your water clean or your mind sane or your body intact. It will not keep you from amputating parts of yourself to fit someone else’s agenda.
So what do we do? Is this a trick question? To answer is to assume that I know what you’re willing to give up for whatever needs to be done. It’s to assume that your stakes in this are the same as my own. It is to assume that you understand that your fate is tied to mine and that this march is not just one big cathartic moment that ends as soon as we all drift away. And wouldn’t all of that be presumptuous of me?
I want to tell you to read. Read wide and read deep about the oppression that now directly impacts you and the ones that have been impacting me. But will you? I want to tell you to put your dollars--with no strings attached--behind programs already doing the work like the YWCA, DAIS, the Catalyst Project, the Doyenne Group. But will you? I want to tell you to sponsor black businesses so that we can build up our communities and increase our chances of protecting ourselves in these uncertain times. But will you? I offer you no take aways or no calls to action because I don't know enough about how far you will go when you are no longer in a sea of pussy hats. Instead, I leave you with a message as uncomfortable as the one I began with. More specifically, I leave you with a question: What exactly are YOU going to do after today?
[This is the speech Sagashus Levingston delivered at the Women's March in Madison, WI on January 21, 2017. For many reasons, she improvised the final part in the live version. So it is not included here. But the final paragraph is its actual ending.]
Three Mondays ago, when this blog started, we had the wind knocked out of us with what has seemingly become the "temple(s) of our familiars" in this country. The brutal, unjust, flagrant, horrific, surreal, incomprehensible, violent, killings of our darker hued sons, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were played over and over again and in a manner that I cannot remember ever having been a witness to, on every media outlet available. We, the Infamous Mothers, had to hit the ground running, as they say, and respond to where we were as a society that was simply drenched with tears that ran as though there was no beginning nor would there ever be an end. I, as a mother with scared children and as a woman with brown skin and as a writer and a feeler, got stuck, momentarily, in that dangerous place where the dark seemed to only get darker...that place where the wailing never ceased as the film clips played over and over again in my head. I am so grateful today that I was able to crawl, claw, and climb my way out of that cavernous hole so I could keep breathing and very importantly, show my babies how to stop gasping and draw long, steady, pure breaths of air so they so that they would not get stuck in that dark place created by hatred.
So. I'm finna change up a little bit. I know there are issues...but there have always been issues. Am I right? Nobody here is new to this shit and I, like you and you and you have had do many times in our lives when the whole fuccn bottom dropped out from under us and everybody thought, "Surely, she must be dead." Today, I am gonna remind us 'bout them times when there was nothing to be seen but rubble for miles and miles but suddenly, singing could be heard. You following me? From under the rubble, a rebel, now to be regarded as an INFAMOUS song, came up through the dirt and rocks and remnants of what we were before our "bottoms" crashed and suddenly hunny, lemme tell you, we came up StrongerBetterWiser! Distill us down to our very essences and that, sisters, is who we are! And when you come through some times and some places like that, you ain't got the time not the inclination to try to be a "nice" lady. Hear me when I tell you that when your a** is on that line, you ain't got time to be cute or coy or proper or demure...because we have counted the cost. We KNOW souls are hanging in the balance and if we don't get and moving and doing and being, our babies will be left with no one. And that shit, dear friends, ain't gonna happen on my watch.
Hi. (smile) My name is Ruby TruthSeeker. I am a story teller and I am so glad to meet you. I am OVER THE MOON excited about my time here on Mothers Mondays! I don't have to, I get to share stories of my journey from back "there" alllllll the way to my right "here" WITH MY BABIES! in my quirky, manic, #zerofuqs, oft misunderstood, very articulated, well-modulated, SyNcOpAtEd, and very obviously, "tri-educated," manner about why I ain't a "Nice Lady." I am going to tell you stories about my trying and failing and ultimately surviving trying to navigate motherhood as broken woman turned addict. There will be some dramatic and sad beginnings about a little girl that lost her voice and then some arduous middles, fraught with fear, bad love, betrayal, abuse, and confused and abandoned children that cried in their sleep at night. Then, I get to take it right to the "big ol' brang it on home to yo' mama" pinnacle that tell you that you are not alone in your experience of all the bad things that happen to broken women who think they are simply failing at being Bad Bitches...only then, to gently take you down the other side of that mountain into the denouement or the Resolution where God tenderly and gently, taught me, for the first time in my life what Love looked like. Love, my sisters, truly changed the game.
Naw...hell naw, I ain't no "nice lady" but hunny lemme tell you, I am a hell of a Woman!
See, when you find that thing called Freedom, you realize that you don't have to accept certain titles or treatment from others that don't apply to you. They never did! We know that we betta not silence that “still small voice” or what I like to call the “primal nudge” that says, “I’m uncomfortable.” or “I’m angry!” or “You are hurting me!” or simply, “I see you. Stop that shit.” Looking back over my experience of “becoming a lady” I see all the messages I internalized that really only served to steal my Voice and as a result, started the slow death of my spirit in bits and pieces. “I don’t want to be a bad girl. He might think I’m a bitch!” Or the big one, since I am a preacher’s kid, “That’s Rev. So and So, I better be nice because he’s so IMPOTENT.” (Misspelling deliberate) We know if we speak out (or talk back) we are accused of being too emotional, possibly suffering from “female hysteria,” crazy, in need of a shit load of psychotropic medications, on our periods, or just in need of a really good orgasm….well, maybe the latter, but you know what I’m trying to say! If there is one important lesson I’d like to teach my daughters, it would be, “Young ladies, learn to live comfortably close to who you are.” It does not matter WHO, WHY, WHAT, WHEN, or WHERE– do not accept what you perceive to be abuse, disrespect, poor taste, ignorance-or anything that just doesn’t “sit well” with you. And the glorious part of that ladies, is we do not have to provide evidence or proof or present “empirical data” that supports or substantiates our assertions blah blah blah blah! Feel me, ladies? It's wild, it's crazy, it's beautiful. If folks can't accept that, well, it just is what it is. Move out the way.
So, for those who will inevitably say, “RubyT, why are you so mean?” I say to you, I cannot love you until I love me. And if I cannot love me by validating myself and acknowledging the stirrings and rumblings in my spirit….well, I say to you, you need to BEWARE! I will bring MAYHEM to your lives. Because I understand that, “Behavior is the consequence of the inner,” your minimal expectation can be CARNAGE, CASUALTIES, AND COLLATERAL DAMAGE. Oh, and let us not forget that I will be responsible for raising a couple more generations of broken, spiritually sick women that will perpetuate a wildly colorful and creative array of dysfunctions in this world. I can do that. Truly, I can.
Now, when I think of Jesus, with His bad self, cleansing the Temple and crying, “Money Changers!” and knocking s*** over….never once does His righteous indignation, his anger take away from his message of Love and who he was and impact on the world. And remember that tramp at the well-who YET had a man at her home who was NOT her husband??? He offered her "Living Water!" He found her Worthy. I understand that some of my pasts and my present and my views and beliefs and potential and strength may make some uncomfortable. Good! I guess I’m just not a nice lady.
We are Women, mothers, a products of the legal system, baby mama's, broke, hard working, loving lovers, prostitutes-inside their marriages or out (yeah, we gonna tell the truth about some stuff) and crazed defenders, addicts, broken, rejected and abandoned. Women who haven't been loved well so as a result, grew up never knowing what Love even looked like...
Women just like me. You see, all that be me. There are parts of my story that can be told like an elegant poem and other parts that I can only articulate from that primal place where I just gotta get lowdown as f*** when I speak of them. And I can stand in the brutal brilliance of all of that and be utterly convinced of my Restoration, Redemption, and Reconciliation to all the things that were meant for me before the world got a chance to subdue my spirit and steal my voice. Today, I know my life is a "working model" of what Love truly looks like and if needed, comes complete with evidence and empirical data to silence the naysayers. "I'm sorry you feel that way, but I am a Woman and a Mother..and Infamously so!
I am so tired. But I cannot rest. I fell asleep last night after being up for about 36 hours…36 hours of thinking and praying and loving and talking and teaching and holding and guiding and soothing and seeking…I was so tired. I quickly fell into a deep sleep, only to be awakened by a dream. In this dream--there’s so much I can’t remember now--I was giving my son gifts.
I am a PhD candidate. I am also the single mother of six children. That is what inspired Infamous Mothers. I wanted to read stories about women who were disrupting stereotypes and norms. I wanted to read about teen mothers who were revolutionaries, baby mamas who were doctors, formerly-addicted mothers who became counselors. I wanted to read stories about unlikely heroines who not only looked like me but who had experiences like mine. And my existence, along with the existence of many others, proved that wanting these stories was not asking for too much because we have examples of them every day.
Finally, I pulled over and said to her, "Baby, have you heard anything about the news today?" My angel/pixie/fairy/mermaid shook her head no. I said, "I've been thinking about you all day as these horrific stories have played over and over and over and I think that you are old enough to be aware of the world around you. And maybe, baby, if I show you, you will be able to understand better, why I am constantly monitoring you while we are in stores about little behaviors that seem like I am making a big deal for nothing." I went on to say, "Now, I know you have seen scary movies and you are not too affected by them because you know that they really aren't real. But baby, today I have seen some things that are scarier than any movie that I have ever seen. They were more scary because they were REAL."
“Infamous Mothers…I am a brown woman, a mother and I am so angry I can hardly manage. Brown folk are being murdered in the street. Killed by police..."
We are so excited to launch the Infamous Mothers website! We're glad you're here. Thanks for taking the time to check us out. The Welcome section of the website sums us up. This space is for women who mother on the margins, who the "good mothers" do not actively seek out. We are not PTO moms. We did not do things in the right order. People do not often give us awards. But we're still here. We're still moms. We still matter. And we still make a difference. Infamous Mothers is our space.
This space is also for people who are not like us but who want to know more, want to supportor just want to "listen in." We want you to observe, read, hear. But we want to remain the dominant voice. So few spaces afford us that. Please, let us have it.
Our imagery. There is some really cool things happening here. For instance, the high quality photography that captures the strength, poise, seriousness and beauty of the mothers we call Infamous is not only intentional but important to our work. So many women on the fringes of "good mothering" are represented as villains, ugly, cheap, etc. In addition to the stories created about us, the images are usually compromised. The photos are darkened to make us seem evil. We are more often than not made to be caricatures. Our hair, lips, skin often go uncelebrated. But not here. We value the women we engage. We value our struggles as well as our triumphs. We try to capture that in the photography. We include faces and photos that are as striking, bold, powerful and beautiful as our women. We deserve it. Thank you, Creative Silence, for making that possible.
Gallery of Mothers. Speaking of striking and beautiful, please visit our first exhibit in our gallery of mothers. It's called the Ratchet Housewife, a series of images featuring our ambassador, Tanisha Pyron. Tanisha calls the woman in the exhibit Aunt Suga. Who is she to you? Why is she so ratchet? But more importantly, why does she matter? The goal of our monthly showcases is to give the viewer an opportunity seriously engage black mothers who are often dismissed as stereotypes and clichés. It is an opportunity to think about them as real people, with real struggles and meaning. It's an opportunity to face yourself, regardless of who you are, as you face them. You can check out Tanisha's interpretation of this woman and then come up with your own. The trick is to, as our ambassador says, inhabit and become her as you try to make sense of her voice and her life. It's not to project onto her but to connect with her, to uncover her story.
Come to our events! Join Us is a sincere invite. Our talks and workshops are created for mothers and the communities that support us. We have something to share. And we want you to have it. A strong part of our work is awareness raising. The bottom line is this: Women who care for children face challenges that are specific to their roles as mothers. The world should understand this. And mothers should be able to face this reality in a safe space. Our talks are where conversations begin. Our workshops are where tools and strategies are developed and honed. Look forward to classes in the future and once-a-month get togethers called Late Night Gossip. Join us, and revolutionize your mothering practice.
Responding to our work. Reviews seemed too blah for us. So we named that section Testify. We believe it captures our spirit. We call; we respond; we bear witness; we testify. Go there to see what folks are saying about us.
We blog. While testifying is a very public thing, conversations between mothers are not. Our individual mothering worlds are not. Between Us is the section of our site that tries to move through what can be the isolation of our practice of caring for children. This space is meant to feel personal and intimate, like a discussion in your kitchen or living room. It's meant to address the secrets, fears, anxieties and shameful thoughts we experience. It is a deliberate space, compassionate and empathetic. But we imagine it can also be frustrating--as the truth often is. Expect to find the voices of other mothers here, the partners who love them, the professionals who care for them and the family and community members who support them. All of these people will have stories, ideas and thoughts woven into ours. Don't expect them to come as the authority on our lives though! We'll leave that to us. Instead, expect them to contribute another aspect of the narrative...This is our communal diary or journal. But we don't stop at venting. We work on solutions, goals and plans...collectively. We empower our experience as mothers.
Tell us what you think! Contact Us means we are seriously interested in hearing from you! Please, leave us your questions, feedback, suggestions. We welcome your criticism as well as your praise. If there is something you'd like to see here, let us know. This is our space. Own it. Make sure it reflects us. Reach out and make the connection.
What to expect in the future? Expect engagement. Expect hospitality. Expect to come back for more!