“I came to Madison in 1968,” recalls 85-year-old Madison activist Milele Chikasa Anana. “In that era, when I would look at newspapers or the news, I saw only stereotypical images of black people, and I thought, ‘This story is not balanced. There must be something more. Must be something missing here.’”
This realization led Anana, known as “Ms. Milele,” to take a recently-launched newsletter aimed at the African American community in Madison and turn it into a vibrant magazine. She called it UMOJA. “In the Swahili language, moja means one. When you add u, it becomes together. All of us,” she says.
Lifetime Madison resident Edith Hilliard has a copy of every UMOJA ever printed, which numbers over 300. “When anybody thinks of positive things that are happening in Madison, that’s where they heard about it, from UMOJA. So, I think that’s her legacy,” Hilliard says.
Ms. Milele began the magazine in 1990 to portray the positive aspects of the African American community, a counterpoint to mainstream media’s narrow focus on black athletes and crime reporting. “All the men that I knew were not criminals and they were not athletes,” says Ms. Milele, who was the magazine’s editor, photographer, interviewer, and head writer.
Through featuring success stories, graduations, job promotions, anniversaries and other positive news, Ms. Milele feels the magazine has had a real impact in Madison. “What we’ve found over the years is that if you feature a black person who has done something, other black people say, ‘Oh, I can do that, too.’ So, that has inspired a lot of people, to know that others had these dreams but didn’t know whether they could do it or not,” she says.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of UMOJA are its covers. Ms. Milele never had the kind of budget to do photo cover portraits common in lifestyle magazines, but she had an idea. “I decided to use black artists to portray our experience,” she says, sitting in her sunny home surrounded by family photos and beautiful African American artwork.
“Ms. Milele has given a lot of artists an opportunity to get to work seen by the community,” says Madison painter Jerry Jordan, who’s work has been featured on over a dozen UMOJA covers. “She will demand the best out of you and you want to live up to it.” “The artwork is absolutely beautiful. Maybe artwork that you wouldn’t normally see, so that was an excellent idea for her to do that,” says Hilliard.
Ms. Milele ran UMOJA for 29 years until 2018 when she retired. It is now published by Urban League of Greater Madison. And she has a sense of the legacy she’s created. “My greatest goal has been social justice in the broader sense. To promote the things that would be peaceful. To help others understand that we all have a contribution in life. I think UMOJA revolutionized the way black people are portrayed in Madison.”