“I Am Always Going to Be a Mouth”: A Witness for Black Women’s Organizing Power by Mudiwa Pettus
During the first two years of the pandemic, my partner, Michael, and I were accorded the safety of working from home. Haphazardly, we converted the living room of our one-bedroom apartment into our shared workspace. Michael had his corner, and I had mine. When we needed distance from each other or privacy, one of us, usually Michael, would be “banished to the dungeon,” sentenced to finish the rest of the workday in our bedroom, which is, in typical NYC fashion, is more bed than room.
Michael is the Senior Housing & Sustainability Organizer at a Black-led community organization that coordinates campaigns to improve the lives of Black Central Brooklynites. I am a professor at Medgar Evers College, a predominantly Black institution within the City University of New York. Managing our work life ensconced in our cozy apartment meant that our seemingly endless cycles of virtual classes, faculty meetings, conversations with tenants, symposiums, and organizing calls blended to make a cacophony of Black discourse. Through his proximity to me, Michael was allowed a behind-the-scenes tour of my habits of pedagogy and the joys and pains of academia; through him, I was introduced to a world of Black organizing in action. Physically, intellectually, and emotionally, we became enveloped in each other's work.
So one day, when a lawyer friend called Michael to tell him that a judge had dismissed a tenants’ association lawsuit against a negligent landlord, I was familiar with the context of the case. Alongside a team of movement lawyers, Michael had been supporting the tenants’ group, composed primarily of older Black women, during their three-year legal battle to gain renovations to their apartment complex. Their landlord was performing what has become a trick of unethical landlords around the city: refusing to make much needed renovations to rent-stabilized units with the hopes that long-standing tenants, often people of color, will move out after growing tired of living in poorly maintained apartments and that elderly tenants occupying the apartments will die. Either outcome would allow the landlord to renovate the units and rent them for a higher price. I crowded Michael once he got off the phone with the lawyer to make sure I had perceived the call correctly. “They lost the case?” I asked incredulously. Michael, no stranger to the losses of organizing campaigns, shrugged, “It happens,” and explained that the judge had conceded that the tenants’ landlord had maintained an unsafe living environment but argued that the landlord had not acted maliciously. I was astonished.
A few weeks after receiving news of the judge’s decision, Michael informed me that he would be attending a celebration for the tenants’ association. Initially, I was surprised that the tenants could find any room for joy following their legal defeat, but I quickly realized their reasoning. Although I had never met any of the tenants in person, I had come to know their vigilance through the ways their stories had reverberated in our apartment. Their courage to face retaliation from their landlord. Their commitment to find ways to organize in the face of global catastrophe. Their audacity to believe that they were formidable opponents against a long history of tenant exploitation in the city. They were right. There was much to celebrate, and I knew I wanted to be there to congratulate them. I told Michael that I would be his plus one.
The party took place in the courtyard of the tenants’ building on a beautiful spring day. The tenants’ association gathered with music and refreshments. As Michael greeted members and introduced me to the group, I was finally able to put faces to the names and voices I recognized from his organizing calls. During the party, members checked in with each other to make sure they were doing well. They also shared stories of what they had experienced and witnessed in their complex, using the time to shine a light on their cause since local council members and a State Senator were among the guests.
There were stories of collapsing ceilings. Untreated mold. Women resembling my grandmothers explained how they had to climb over roofs to get into their apartments because their landlord refused to fix broken elevators. And their struggles extended into the courtroom.
As I listened to the women explain how their landlord’s legal team tried to intimidate and confuse them while they were testifying in court, attempting to make them question their own sense of reality, I was not surprised, but overwhelmed. It all seemed so unfair. Everything. The loopholes that their landlord was trying to exploit. The lawsuit being dismissed. The fact that these women couldn’t even get peace in their own homes. The pandemic. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Being separated from my family indefinitely. Everything. I pinched my toes into my shoes and dug my fingertips into the palms of my hands, trying to stop myself from crying.
But just as my tears emerged, the members of the tenants’ association shifted the atmosphere. One of the members, Ms. Johnson, reminded the group that she had been relentless her entire life and that the outcome of their lawsuit wasn’t going to change a thing. Speaking of how her constitution was fundamentally one of protest, she declared defiantly, “I am always going to be a mouth.” The synecdochic allusion and grammar of her message were clear. There was no stopping her from speaking out against injustice. Picking up where Ms. Johnson left off, someone else shouted, “Black people have always been organizers. We organized on the boat!” referring to the ways that enslaved Africans taken hostage on slave ships forged bonds that led to rebellion, community building, and survival. “That’s right!” another member shouted in affirmation.
And then I began to smile. Standing there listening to the group, I recognized that I had been there before, not in the exact place and time or with that specific group of people, but on the same plane of existence. Among Black people collectively agreeing to keep fighting. Despite the odds. Despite the singular outcomes. Despite the risks. It was there in the courtyard, celebrating Black women who had just lost a lawsuit against their guilty landlord in a pandemic with no end in sight, that I regained some of the optimism that had left me since spring 2020. Their hope gave me hope that I’ve tucked away in a part deep inside of me for safe keeping.