When I go places in public I always notice how people count my children for me.
"Wow, you've sure got your hands full". People think that's the thing to say to a mother of multiple children, but it really is offensive. When I tell people how many, they're shocked. They say, "You don't look like you have five kids".
Really what they're saying is ,“I had an imagination of what a mother of five kids would look like, and you don't fit that.”
Depending on what kind of mood I'm in, I'll say: "Well now you can reset what you think mothers of five children look like. Here I am. Nice to meet you".
Today, the book came back from the printer.
It’s not my book, but I feel tremendous pride of ownership, from the small contribution I was able to make as its editor. More than that, I feel humbled by being invited to be a part of this endeavor. I am a white, almost 70-year-old gay male, and the invitation to work with a powerful black female author telling the stories of twenty extraordinary black women was a gift I cherish. I am grateful beyond measure.
The call came almost a year ago - out of nowhere, it seemed. A woman I had never met, Sagashus Levingston, had gotten my name from a mutual friend as someone who might help with her book. She had conducted extensive recorded interviews with twenty women. Transcribed, these interviews ranged from 20 to 160 pages each. She needed someone to edit each story down to roughly 6 pages, so she could combine them in a book.
It was a ridiculously impossible task, I thought to myself. And then she told me about the women.
They were Infamous Mothers. They had been sex workers, drug addicts, felons, victims of sexual and domestic abuse. They had become teachers, counselors, nurses, entrepreneurs and leaders in their communities. They had not only survived; they had prospered. And they all had stories to tell.
I hesitantly, tentatively said ‘yes’. I suggested that we start with a couple of the interviews to see if I was up to the task. Sagashus sent me two stories. I read them, more dismayed than ever that this might not work. Then I started editing – cutting out hundreds of words, often whole paragraphs and pages – but never changing a single word. I felt that it was important to honor the words the women used to tell their stories. I couldn’t insert a word of my own, or substitute a word that I thought might work better. I eliminated redundancies. I stripped out less vital parts of the interviews, seeking to spotlight the story that lurked within.
The first two stories totally worked. Slimmed down and streamlined, but entirely in the voices of the women who had lived them, these stories blossomed. They filled my heart in the process of the editing, and I knew they would fill the heart of anyone who read them. I had eighteen stories to go. Each time I started a new one, I worried that it might not ‘work’ as a story. And then, remarkably, their stories appeared from within their words, like a glistening statue from a block of marble.
Sagashus T. Levingston was born in Chicago and raised in the area now known as Bronzeville. She holds a bachelor’s in English Literature from the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been attending graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There she earned a Master’s in Afro-American Studies and is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of English. Sagashus is the mother of six children—three boys and three girls. They all currently live in Madison, WI. She is an infamous mother.
Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know Sagashus well. She is a charming, charismatic, dynamic whirlwind of a woman. She’s a powerhouse, a profound mover and shaker, and an eloquent and heart-moving speaker.
Infamous Mothers is published by Kristen Mitchell’s Little Creek Press (Mineral Point), and is available at www.littlecreekpress.com. It is also available through Sagashus’ website: www.infamousmothers.com, and through Amazon.
Working on this book changed me. It changed the way I look at a whole class of women, and at twenty women, in particular.
They are my heroes. They’ll be yours, too.
I’m not afraid to stand here and say yes, I have not been the most perfect woman, mother, lover, mother, daughter, auntie, grandchild, sister, friend, or even a self-examiner.
I have not been a perfect person. My soul used to be dark and my heart used to carry hate. My mind wouldn’t let me forget.
Yes, I am not perfect, but at least I can stand here today and say – no, not say – I can scream from the mountaintop that I am no longer any of these things.
I am a survivor.