A big move for UMOJA magazine’s Ms. Milele

Founder remains focused on black stories
A big move for UMOJA magazine’s Ms. Milele
Paulius Musteikis

After nearly 30 years celebrating black culture and community through UMOJA magazine, Madison’s Milele Chikasa Anana, who is publicly known as Ms. Milele, stepped down as the publication’s editor in November 2018. UMOJA, which means “unity” in Swahili, will continue to publish monthly through the Urban League of Greater Madison. January marked her 85th birthday. We spoke to the veteran story teller to hear about this new chapter. Here is an edited Q&A.

What inspired you to start UMOJA nearly 30 years ago?
I wanted to get away from the media picturing black people as criminals and athletes. That was my No. 1 mission. The easiest way to do this was to use print articles to do the opposite, so I started the magazine as a yellow-page newsletter that went from front to back without stopping. My readers and my colleagues at the Wisconsin State Journal helped me to transition into a magazine format. I feel Madison365, The Madison Times, Capital City Hues, sometimes Brava, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times and Madison Magazine have all benefited from my mission. I found a way to bring art and writing together. Over the years, I learned to merge design and the essence of the article. The cover art set the stage for this. My early idea was that everything written about black people should be told in a beautiful way and have drama. … When I wrote about a church experience, that should capture the dignity and the meaning of what religion meant to black people. When I wrote about “Who works while the city sleeps?” I wanted to concentrate on black city workers. I didn’t want anything we did to be taken for granted, for these achievements had survived the ugliness of discrimination, redlining, not being promoted to the next level.

In what ways are you most proud of UMOJA?
The fact that I stayed the course, along with my colleagues Dana Warren and Howard Landsman. I published for almost 30 years – 28 years and 11 months to be exact. I did this despite lack of funds, health issues, taking time out to travel internationally, family responsibilities, moving four to five times, boyfriends, whatever. I was determined that black people in Madison, just like Ebony magazine, should celebrate anything and everything positive about them.

What do you want people to know about your transition away from editor and publisher?
In my small space on this earth, I found a way to celebrate the accomplishments of black people, despite the restraints of discrimination and segregation, which every one of us has endured. I really do think this is wonderful. So many times, the other media look at black people through the civil rights and social injustice lens, through crimes committed or athletics.A big move for UMOJA magazine’s Ms. Milele

What are your plans after stepping down as editor and publisher?
Right now, I am busy asking people to contribute to my scholarship endowment fund through the Goodman Center and the Madison Community Foundation. We need to raise $25,000 so that a young person can go to a HBCU (historically black colleges and universities). I am also working on a book with artist Jerry Butler about Kwanzaa through the critical lens of art so that children and adults will understand that art, like writing, is another way of storytelling. Meanwhile, I am trying to fund a project so that the biographies of prominent black people, especially those who achieved “firsts in Madison,” won’t be lost. I have my Yorkipoo to spoil.

Anything else you’d like people to know about the magazine, UMOJA’s message, the transition or yourself?
I see so many wonderful endeavors that have been started by black people to connect themselves outside of their network. They are very inspiring. I’m thinking of Lisa Peyton-Caire, Wanda Smith, Dr. Roxie Hentz and the CEOs of Tomorrow, Will Green and the “Off the Block” salsa project, Jackie Hunt, the Reentry Project, Camille Carter’s Black Chamber of Commerce and the book “Settlin’: Stories of Madison’s Early African American Families” by Muriel Simms. All of these bring a voice that we haven’t heard before. … I hope that Madison will pay attention to these voices and not just rely on the white-centered culture that has been exclusive, rather than inclusive. … If it’s not inclusive, it’s not authentic.