Chimwemwe Munthali knows what it feels like to be a little different.
Growing up black in Burke, she was sometimes the only dark-skinned child at parties. Her name made some people scrunch up their foreheads before mispronouncing it. When her family began attending BPC in the 1980s, occasionally people would scoot into different pews when the Munthalis sat close.
“Some people will only see your skin color,” Chimwemwe, who goes by Chimmy, remembers her mother telling her. “But you hold your head up high.”
Chimmy did. She made lots of dear friends, both at school and at church. She fostered a love of books and writing, and had teachers who nurtured her. She attended Northwestern University, received a degree in environmental engineering, and pursued a successful career.
She has had her share of race-related encounters: the friend’s mom who asked her to enter through the back door; the businessman who refused to let Chimmy and her white male friend enter his establishment together; the coworker who made a racial slur about President Obama in her presence.
At the same time, she hasn’t always felt aligned with the perspectives of many black peers. Chimmy’s family is from Malawi in Africa, and they came to this country in 1981; they do not share the legacy of slavery or the Civil Rights experience that many African-Americans do.
“I didn’t grow up with animosity toward cops,” she said of growing up in Burke. “My experience with cops was that when they would show up at a party I was at in high school, they’d say, ‘Okay, honey, let’s head on back home.’”
So when the spotlight turned recently onto the relationship between law enforcement and black communities, Chimmy’s feelings were complicated. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and other black men, and the ensuing outrage and riots made Chimmy wonder: Are things getting worse for black America? What was her position on these cases? On the news coverage? How should she feel?
When she tried to talk with others about these things, she met with some walls.
“Even one on one, people were all kinds of nervous to have a conversation,” Chimmy said.
So she turned to the place she has often gone when she’s needed to “rant,” as she puts it: her keyboard. Childhood memories related to race, some of them painful, spilled onto the page. Then poems.
she must make things better now
see our story has been unraveling
as we tiptoe
around police brutality
around a culture, a world
gripped by rage, by violence
are these not all different
words for fear?
And then this winter, she pasted the words into an email and did something that made her kind of nervous.
“I pushed ‘send,’” Chimmy said.
The recipient was Pastor Meg. The two talked, and what came out of those conversations was a Sunday afternoon potluck at church, titled Beyond Headlines and Hashtags. And then, three more.
People talked about their experiences with race as children. They talked about systemic racism and family members who treat minorities in ways they find inappropriate.
Sure, there were uncomfortable moments, Chimmy said.
“But I went into it really with an open mind,” she said. “I guess I feel like there are just a lot of uncomfortable conversations that need to happen, and church is the place to have them. Where is the safe place? It’s here. We already know we’re a family … We know God will guide us.”
Turning paper into action: That’s what pressing “send” did for Chimmy, she said. It was a way to continue holding her head high, as her mom has always encouraged her to do.
“Not everyone is at the same place on all these hard issues. But we need to be open and honest about where we are today if anything’s going to change. That’s what this was for me.”