“My mom trained me to believe I can make a difference.”

My father named me Sagashus, and he never let me forget what it meant: wise, shrewd, calculating. He knew what his lifestyle was—four generations of sex work, surrounded by drugs—and he saw something different for me.

Photos by Megan Monday

Sagashus Levingston | Madison, WI

“By naming me Sagashus, he was giving me a direction and a vision to break out of that generational cycle. From a young age I felt a sense of responsibility, an obligation, a pride that motivated me to do something different.

If I had to lay out my life in chapters, Chapter 1 would be called ‘chaos.’

I grew up in Chicago. In my youngest years, I was on the north side. I was in my dad’s world…his women, his drugs, his many children from different women coming in and out of the house.

My parents seemed like polar opposites. My dad knew words; my mom knew systems. My dad was a womanizer—sometimes a pimp, all the time a player. My mom was an intelligent woman. She was educated. She eventually got a four-year degree and she always worked. She was consistently teaching vulnerable people how not to be vulnerable.

At the time, she trusted my dad because he was very articulate and charismatic and spoke with authority. I don’t think she fully understood the level of trauma and confusion that came with him, because he was always put together…always had nice cars, nice clothes.

For a lot of years, I blamed my dad for so many things. But eventually, I recognized the reality is that before he was my dad, he was a man. And before he was a man, he was a boy in his own dysfunctional childhood. His mom spent a lot of time in jail, whether it was for sex work or fraud or whatever crime she had committed. He was molested as a kid, and the guy who molested me had been molested for years by his own mom. These were the folks who were in charge.

During these chaotic early years of my life, bad things happened, but so many good things happened, too. I remember we had a fireplace. I remember my dad making lobster and shrimp and watching him crush pecans in a little nutcracker. I remember these wonderful things, these happy moments, right alongside the molestation, drug use, and arguing.

Around age four, I was molested by one of our tenants. My dad owed him money and this was his way of getting back at my dad. When the truth came out about my molestation, my mom got me out of there. She moved us in with my grandma on the south side.

I never really felt at home at my grandma’s. I was safe, but I was never the family favorite. In my mom’s family, your value comes from the type of man you’re attached to, and because my dad was so unstable, I was out of luck. Also, I wasn’t pretty like the other women in my family. I wasn’t shapely or thin. I didn’t have the right type of hair and I couldn’t dance or sing, I didn’t have the right type of father, and then I had the nerve to be intelligent, too.

My mom could see what was happening, so she wrote in her Bible, ‘Lord, if you bless me with a place to live, I will never lose it.’

And she kept her word—that’s the kind of woman she is. When I was around eight years old, we moved, just the two of us, into a new housing development. In fact, she’s still living there now, 30 years later.”

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“We lived in that place for years, and that’s where I found stability. It was just me and my mom.

She taught me how to bake and cook, and she used to have these conversations with me at night. I’d tell her, ‘Mom, I’m going to fly to the moon.’ And she would say, ‘Okay, well let’s figure out how big your wings are going to have to be.’ She was the one to help me come up with the pathway.

We were dreaming together and planning together, and I was able to build self-confidence because whatever I say I want to do, she’s cheering me on.

I start at the local Catholic school. It was strict. If you did not do what you were supposed to, they were going to hit your knuckles with a ruler, or they were going to hit you with a paddle that had words, ‘I love you’ engraved on it. People complain about things like that now, but I appreciated the discipline that came with it. The structure and discipline at that school really shaped the woman that I was going to end up becoming. Fortunately, I was a model student, so I didn’t see the paddle too much.

I had this stability at home and at school, but I was also vulnerable and lonely. I was lonely because I wasn’t in a house full of kids any more, and I was vulnerable to the neighborhood bullies because I was wearing my uniform and they’re all going to the public school. To them, I’m the ‘bougie’ black girl. So, I had to fight those people every day on my way home from school.

Then came my next chapter: stability interrupted.”

“Even though I was lonely and vulnerable to neighborhood bullies, I was happy living with my mom, dreaming together, going to Catholic school…but then things started to change.

My younger half-brothers, still living on the north side with my dad, were playing with fire in the closet and ended up burning their house down. My mom wasn’t even their mother, but she took them in because there was no place for them to go.

When their mother came to pick them up and move them to Florida, they were begging my mom to not let them go, because now they’re experiencing stability for the first time in their lives. I didn’t want them to go, either, because I wasn’t lonely any more.

After that, it all unraveled. My younger brothers left, and my dad moved in with us. Then my older brother, my mom’s older son, came home from jail.

My older brother is 14 years older than me, so he’s an adult when he moves in. He was a drug dealer and heavily into gang activity, and my dad was a drug user and a gigolo who turned our home into the neighborhood crack house while my mom was at work.

I didn't realize it was a crack house, because I'm thinking it’s just my dad’s friends coming over. I’m still a kid. But my brother’s an adult; he knows exactly what's going on.

These two men were always clashing. My Dad has nunchucks because he’s a fan of Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee at the time. My brother has a knife, and they’re fighting constantly. They were both street people, but they had two different sets of street principles. My brother’s idea was that whatever you do, don’t bring it home. My dad’s idea is everything you do, you bring home. He thought that kids should adjust for adults, adults don’t adjust for kids.

There was arguing and yelling constantly, and my mom was crying because she didn’t know what to do. She came from a generation where there was a lot of stigma in being a single mom, so she was trying to make things work, yet this man was nothing but chaos, and her son was chaos. She’d talk to me about this at two, three o’clock in the morning, and then I’d have to get up for school the next day.

By the time I’m in eighth grade, my mom starts looking for a way out for me. She’s talking to the nun at my Catholic School about getting me a sponsor so that I can go to a private boarding school. She pulls it off—I was the only one in my class to get a sponsor because she knew how to advocate and ask for it. She found me a way out and I took it.”

“Boarding school was my escape from chaos. I fell in love with the campus the minute I got there. It was so beautiful, so peaceful, and the people were kind. The school was in Lake Forest, Illinois. It was a mansion that they had repurposed, the classes were small, the boys wore sports jackets and ties, the girls wore skirts.

I saw myself fitting in in this place where there was a lot of beauty, free thinking, community, and power. Not power in terms of abuse of power, but these kids, 90 percent of whom were white, had been trained to believe the world was theirs. They all believed they could make a difference in the world.

My mom had trained me to believe that I can make a difference in the world, so that’s what I had common with them. I felt like I had a right to be there, even though those kids came from money and I didn’t. I felt like I had a right to the peace that they had. I felt like I was good enough.

At 14, I started to learn how to navigate this new world. I got in an argument with my roommate, and I beat her up because she was taunting me. I’m thinking, I’m going to get street cred for this, but they’re like, ‘No, there is no street cred here. In this environment, when people are upset, they talk, they use their words, they write letters, they don’t beat people up.’ That was the first time I learned the difference between how to survive in this world versus how to survive in the world I grew up in.

Over the years at boarding school, I’m learning the values of the middle and upper-middle class of America. I’m learning that people are talking about their business moves, their family vacations, internships. I’m learning about this world and I’m gaining cultural capital.

I have this boyfriend that I love dearly at school, he’s a star athlete, he promises to marry me, so against my own better judgment, I give up my virginity. Then I end up pregnant, and it is difficult. My mom is saying to me, ‘When you get grown you can have kids, but I’m not taking care of you and a baby because you are a teenager.’ I get an abortion. It is clear that any misstep could take me off this path and I could end up back in the south side of Chicago.

By the time we were nearing graduation, I was thriving academically. I applied to 17 colleges and got into 15. Then it came, the misstep. We had a new college counselor who didn’t know that there were a few of us who needed to apply for financial aid. No one ever told me to apply. Just as I was graduating and it was time for me to continue on my path, it was like, ‘Oh by the way, you can’t go. When everybody else goes this way, you’ve got to go back that way.’

As much as I loved that life, in the end, I felt like an outsider. It felt like, these folks don’t get me. I couldn’t attend any of the colleges where I had been accepted. I realized that that world wasn’t mine. I landed back on the south side of Chicago.”

“Now I’m living smack dab in the world of drug dealers, gang wars, and violence that I knew nothing about because it’s not how I grew up. I am back to being bullied every day, just like when I was little, except now, we’re not children anymore.

I’m home from boarding school with my long hair, wearing khakis and Gap, and these girls are roughing me up against a wall. This guy walks up and tells the girls, ‘Y’all don’t want to do that.’ He’s a big-time gang banger in the community. He sees this girl who’s always fighting every day; he can tell even though I look like I don’t fit in, I’m not scared.

He takes an interest in me and I start hanging out with him. He is quiet, never talks. For all of his silence, there’s a comfort he has with me and there was a comfort that I had with him. I know nothing about his life in the streets, I just know that whoever he is, these people respect him enough to stop fighting me every day.

Then a gang war breaks out and even though we live blocks away from each other, he can’t come back to my neighborhood. I go to visit him in his neighborhood, and it’s a totally different world. Our community is relatively secure, but in his, almost anything goes. I’ve never seen people live like this. I make up my mind I’m going to get him out of there.

In one year I go from being angry that I couldn’t go to a fancy, small, liberal arts, all-women’s college to meeting this guy and being determined to get him out of our community. I sign up for school at University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and now I have a purpose again.

He ends up going to jail for a non-violent crime and then I find out another woman has been visiting him in jail. I’m like, ‘I’m over this.’ I start dating another person, then I have a series of relationships with abusive men, one that nearly leaves me for dead. I have my first three kids with these men. It takes me seven years to get my four-year degree. All the while, I’m fiercely loyal to my community. I’m thinking I don’t need those fancy mansions or colleges, I’m from the ‘hood, I’m keeping it real now.

After my first child, I remember a girl saying to me, ‘You thought you were Harvard, but you’re Kennedy King [a community college], just like the rest of us. You thought you were all of that, but now you have a baby, and you’re just like the rest of us.’

But what did it mean to be like the rest? Did it mean that having one baby or three or six meant we were no longer Harvard? Did being Kennedy King mean something bad? It never dawned on me that having children meant I was supposed to not accomplish things. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ I realized in that moment that there’s a difference in the way she and I thought. No matter my circumstances, I believed I could do anything, be anybody.

And yet, I still needed to be a big fish in a small pond because even though I knew I could soar academically and professionally, I wanted to be loved. I wanted romance. I wanted validation. Four years at that boarding school made me exotic, different. I talked differently. I dressed differently. I wore my hair differently. I shopped differently. Guys noticed me. Girls resented me. I felt special. But I also felt a deep conviction. Some of the girls I grew up with would say things to me like, ‘We admired you. You had the chance to make it out, and now you’re here with us, doing the same shit we’re doing.’

They challenged me, and I realized that they were right. So I made up my mind that I had to leave, not just because I would never fit in, but because I owed it to them and myself to bring something back to our community. When people leave, folks don’t know what happens to them on the other side, and they take all the hope with them. I wanted to bring something good back. So I began my next chapter, leaving with a mandate.”

“I followed my mandate to the University of Wisconsin to pursue a Master’s degree and PhD. Initially, I wanted to study men in prison, because so many of the men that I knew and cared about were in prison. But then I took a class on feminism. Suddenly all of the feelings I had up to this point in my life, I now had a language for them. I realized I didn’t want to study men in prison, I want to study my own tribe.

I started looking, where are the single moms with six kids, with four different dads? Where are these folks? And then I realize that feminism is like, ‘We do these extraordinary things with women, but we don’t really speak about women like you.’ I’m thinking well, I’m a researcher, our job is to find a gap in the literature, this is clearly a gap. I will build a monument there.

So I dive into the research, finding literature about women who were considered reprehensible or detestable as moms, but they’ve managed to do something extraordinary to change society. At the same time, I want to do more. I have a mandate from those women on the south side of Chicago. I have to include their voices, too.

So I launch a book project and a business called Infamous Mothers. The idea behind the book is to feature the stories and photographs of mothers who we often dismiss, exile, or alienate in our culture. It is about recognizing these women as experts in their own lives, recognizing their beauty, recognizing their power. It’s about them having control over how they want to be seen and represented.

It was also about showing hospitality. You don’t often hear folks saying, ‘Let’s go to the ‘hood and let’s take moms and let’s create a beautiful experience with them,’ but that’s what we did.

I asked the women before the photo shoot, ‘Can you imagine your best version of yourselves? What does it look like in terms of colors and feelings and emotions? If you want make-up, you can have it. If you don’t want make-up, you don’t have to have it. Show up in your best version of yourself, because this day is your day.’

We had a photographer who has done work for Vogue and we had make-up, hair, and clothing stylists. My uncle was the chauffeur—he shuttled the women to and from the south side all day.

The shoot was amazing. Women were saying, ‘I’ve never felt so beautiful.’ One woman showed up with a power drill for her photo shoot. She said that her whole life she’s felt broken and torn down, and now she’s feeling like she’s in the place where she builds things, including herself. It was a powerful day.

Through this work, I want people to rethink the people that we exile or alienate. I want us to really rethink the power of victims and survivors and people who’ve gone through tough things. I want us to think that sometimes it’s the people who struggle the most who have the grit and the perseverance to push for change in society, because they have the least to lose.

We need to normalize the experience of people being unapologetic for the lives that they inherited, were born into, and the circumstances they made it through. This work isn’t about contradicting what we think we know—it’s about adding models and examples and extending the narrative to the things that we never knew about.

For me, my PhD will be the cherry on top. I’m going to finish it after I finish my book campaign.

As I work with various groups, the question I always ask people is, ‘What’s at stake if we don’t do this work?’ If we tell women all they can do is take from society and be worthless and reprehensible and detestable, then that’s what they’re going to be. But if we tell them, ‘Yeah, you’ve done that, and now life is going to be a little bit more challenging for you, but you’re strong enough to embrace that challenge and go do something great,’ that’s probably the most revolutionary thing many of these women have ever heard. That’s what this work is all about.”

-Sagashus Levingston | Madison, WI

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