by Sagashus Levingston
Often I am asked, “What motivated you to come up with Infamous Mothers?” I usually give the safe answer, the well-trained answer, the one that is supported by data. I talk about how many books I read, and what I noticed was missing. The gap. I spend a lot of time talking about that. What I fail to talk about, and this is the heart of all I do, is my own experience—as if data, statistics and books are the only sources of evidence.
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, superheroes, 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. But the media does not cover their stories nearly enough.
"I wanted to read about teen mothers who were revolutionaries."
In my research, I often run across stories of mothers on crack, for instance. The entire story becomes about their struggle with addiction. By the end, she is in recovery. We read about a woman who is being abused by a parent. By the end, she breaks free. In another kind of story, a woman is a single mother. By the end, she’s married. While I can appreciate all of these tales, what I want to see is these women change the world, spark a rebellion, lead a revolution. I want them to be Superwomen, but not a martyr or unrealistically strong. I don’t want their powers to become an excuse for people to not have to see their struggle. They had to be complex in ways that just was not in the literature as frequently as it should, especially in novels. They were in memoirs and science fiction. But even still, these stories were too scarce.
Not so neat little boxes
Society (or somebody) would have us believe that only people who are acceptable—who tell white lies and are reprehensible in the right ways—can have an impact. While I was willing to accept that I made choices that possibly slowed me down in the race, I was not willing to accept the belief that my choices disqualified me from it. I have always wanted to be someone who didn’t just make a difference at home; I wanted to make a difference in the world. And, as it was, stories about women like me were not about that. They were about confirming other people’s ideas about me. They were about keeping me in a category that allowed me to be manageable in their minds. Any contradictions they couldn’t account for, they excluded from their understandings…way too often. I wanted to challenge that thinking.
"I want her to be Superwoman but not a martyr..."
I started creating the coffee-table book because I knew a few things. First, I knew I wanted to change the narrative around stigmatized, black mothers. Second, I knew I wanted to have a conversation around this new representation of baby mamas and teen mamas and so on. Third, part of that shift required me to combine imagery with words. The coffee-table book seemed to be the genre that would allow me to do all of these. In fact, this kind of genre was the perfect choice because, like the women covered within the project, it would help create dissonance. Often, people dismiss this kind of book as superficial. They don’t take it seriously. That made it the winning candidate. Putting serious and provocative content in the kind of book people are meant to take lightly would add to the disruptive story we wanted to create.
Finally, a coffee-table book had to be the beginning. From it, other things needed to come. So we designed workshops and classes, a speaking series, a book/art exhibit tour and a national conference. At the heart of these is the book. It’s the sacred text of this entire suite of products and services. Completing it unlocks the rest of our work.
So, in short, why did I create Infamous Mothers, and it's entire lineup? I wanted to transform society by creating a platform for voiceless mothers.
Photo Credit: Tyler Scott McKinney
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