Modus Mutantur

nadiaowusu.jpegThis piece, written by Nadia Owusu of Living Cities, was originally published as part of Living Cities' C.A.R.E - Conversations About Racial Equity multimedia report. We felt it would resonate strongly with EPIP members and share it here.


We asked for your silence

at birth.

Don’t’ you remember?

We said hush

and sang you a lullaby.

A lullaby is a lie,

but beautiful.

Would you prefer threats?

We made those too,


Hold out your hands,

we said,

for the whack of the ruler;

for the cuffs.

Do not talk

over us

as we educate you

into supplication.

You will learn to perform


You must.

The diploma

in the end

will grant you advantages

through our institutions.

Just shake the outstretched white hand

and smile with your teeth


Here is the bill.

Expect them monthly from now

until recompense,

with interest.

There is no discount

for what we took

from you

and your forebears.

Responsibility is non-transferrable.



to the workplace.

This is your handbook.

Read it carefully.

The culture

we have created

is made of good intentions

and productivity.

We are stewards

of other people’s money,

earned from extraction.

But we don’t say extraction.

For words we don’t say,



the style guide.

We don’t see color

except for promotional purposes.

The approved palette is on page sixty four.


We are doing good and doing well.

Our annual report shows progress.

Don’t tell us we are not helping.

Don’t tell us how we could do better.

Do you think you know better than us?

We were here before you

were born.

We signed your people’s freedom


then supported their causes

with grants and guidance.

They were not ready

to know what they needed

or wanted.

Perhaps your children,

with sufficient patience

and qualifications,

will transcend

the crumbs and the dust.

We pay for the training programs

and count the credentials

as proof points

of our approach.


Leave your family,

your emotions,

and your black body

at the door.

We deal in facts

and figures.

Our data calls you

a fabulist.

Prove us wrong

if you must,

but on your own


and politely.

Be appropriate, please.

See our values statement

for what that means.

This is not the right time or place,

and neither is tomorrow.


We cannot proceed

with your request

to be recognized

until you have adequately defined

your body for us

and correctly quantified

the violence we have done

to it.

There is a form for that,

and a process.


Thank you for your service.

Consider yourself heard.

Consider us changed.

Consider this apology.

Consider the mouths

to feed:

Your children’s,

your parents’

and theirs.

Consider the dead black boy’s body.

Consider all the dead black bodies,

just in the last twelve months.

We signed the petitions.

Consider the bullets

in reverse.

Consider the pile of money

and what we can do

now that we know;

now that we can see

the wound.

Consider the barren

desecrated places

you call home.

Consider the tree

your mother planted there

to teach you to grow.

Consider your grandmother’s

rough hands.

Consider all she sacrificed

to make you

and the promises

we are making you


Consider the paycheck.

Consider the pay raise.

Consider yourself lucky.

We are lucky to have you.

Consider your heartache.

Will it be for nothing?

We cannot do it alone.

Don’t quit us.

Not while you’re ahead.


Tell us what to do.

Show us.

Don’t be angry.

Don’t cry.

We cannot bear the pain in here

as well as out there.

You tried to warn us

about out there.

We didn’t mean to hurt

or silence you.


How will we contain our own grief?

How have you contained it

all this time?

Where do you put it at the end of the day?

Your back looks bent.

Take the load off.

Hand it over.

Take a vacation

somewhere without us,

somewhere hot.

Go home



Can we have your proposal by tomorrow?

Can we hold you


No, not down.


Don’t look up.

The people above us,

on the other side of the white ceiling,

are just like us

but not yet ready

to be seen.

You know us better than we know ourselves,

like a mother

or a spy.


Change happens slowly.

It is happening too fast.

Slow down,

let us count our blessings

and creations.

There is no time.

So much has been wasted

on fear

and decorum

and press releases.

Outside, they are shouting

and singing.

Not lullaby but challenge.

Is that your voice?

Do you know that one?

Can you teach us to sing

through transcription?

From the window,

we can see the signs below.

The signs beg us to come out

and listen.

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