Reflections of Frances, my dear childhood African American nanny

October 28, 2020 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Diversity and Inclusion Committee of Edward-Elmhurst Health: We are DRIVEN to create a culture in which all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual-orientations, physical abilities, and socio-economic backgrounds can meet, share, learn, and flourish in an accepting environment. By creating platforms and opportunities that allow us to come together, we can begin to know and understand each other. And through better understanding, we can effectively meet the needs of our diverse patients and deliver on our mission.

In her own words: written by Uzma Muneer, DO, board-certified pediatrician at Elmhurst Clinic.

When I joined Elmhurst Clinic 10 years ago as a general pediatrician, it was a homecoming of sorts. My parents moved to Elmhurst in the late 1970s when I was only 2 years old. I attended its public schools from kindergarten through high school and grew up just one mile from the present day Elmhurst Hospital.

For over two decades, Elmhurst was my hometown until my parents moved to a nearby suburb when I was in my mid-20s. During my formative high school years, I volunteered over 100 hours as a candy striper at the original Elmhurst Hospital campus. As a graduating York High School senior, I was awarded a college scholarship from the Hospital Guild in recognition of my volunteer hours and academic achievements. My very first job as a teenager also happened to be at the old hospital. Returning to Elmhurst as a pediatrician in 2010 was an incredible full-circle moment.

Many people are familiar with my Elmhurst roots. However, an overlooked but curious piece of my childhood that rarely comes up is what it was like growing up here in the 1980s as a minority, and with an African American nanny.

My ambitious parents immigrated to America from India in 1968 in pursuit of the American dream. After my twin sister and I were born in downtown Chicago, they desperately needed help with childcare. They hired Frances, a southern African American “governess” from the South Side of Chicago.

When my parents moved to Elmhurst shortly thereafter, Frances loyally stayed alongside my family. Every weekday morning, her arduous commute involved a bus, train and cab so she could travel from the city to the suburbs (she never learned to drive).

Rain, sleet or snow, she would leave her South Side home at the crack of dawn and promptly arrive at our home at 7:03 am. For over 10 years, and for only $100 per week, she did this, despite the cumbersome journey, long hours and some racism she experienced from strangers in our community.

I recall a painful example of when xenophobia reared its ugly head. Multiple eggs were launched at our home as an aggressive act of racism toward my family and Frances. Cleaning this vandalism off our garage door and home siding is a sad childhood memory that is hard to fully erase.

Yet, however difficult this recollection is, it is still overshadowed by the years of loving and fun memories we shared with Frances in my childhood home. She cared for us like we were daughters and affectionately referred to us as such. She raised us with her finger-licking fried chicken and with the sass and spirit she modeled every day. It was only after her passing when I was a young adult that I truly understood how much confidence and empathy she passed onto me.

With life moving at such a frenetic pace, it is not often I reflect on my childhood memories with Frances. But in June, when the national spotlight focused on racial injustice, I could not stop thinking about her. I found myself in my basement storage room digging through dusty storage bins labeled “Elmhurst Years” for some small piece of her.

I thought about how hard it must have been for her to come to a predominately white suburb as a Black woman in the 1980s. I reflected on her unwavering devotion to me and my family despite the racism directed at her.

I felt overwhelmed with the desire to go back in time and apologize that I never asked about nor understood her southern, Baptist roots. I wished I could rightfully acknowledge the sacrifices she made to enter an environment that didn’t always welcome her. I yearned to thank her for the undeniable positive imprint she left upon me.

But here’s the irony: Despite having a beloved Black mother figure who shaped my upbringing, I still struggle with reconciling how I, a minority woman of color, can still carry biases of my own. After the grotesque murder of George Floyd, I, like many, have done some quiet introspection.

I am now more aware of the conscious and subconscious biases I carry. I have challenged myself to confront the stereotypical generalizations I unfairly hold about groups of people that are less familiar to me. It has been confusing and disappointing for me to face this, but I have vowed to listen and learn from others’ different experiences.

Only when we address these shortcomings can we grow and improve as individuals and humanity. For me, it is not enough anymore to simply say “I’m not racist.” More than ever, I must vote and work to be an anti-racist.

I talk to my children more openly and frequently about the many injustices in our world. By empowering our youth, we can, together, be an unstoppable force in this historic and necessary moment of change. I am extremely proud to be a part of the Edward-Elmhurst medical system as they have initiated and welcomed this important discussion of diversity and inclusion.

I smile when I wonder what Frances would think if she could see me now as a wife, mom and pediatrician — roles she never had the chance to see me in. I hope she would be proud.

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