For most of the night, the woman of honor whispered little more than “thank you” when asked if she wanted to share some thoughts on her life and career. But something shifted as the evening was winding to a close, as if Milele Chikasa Anana realized she had a captive audience and the perfect opportunity to do what she does best: promote the work of African Americans and celebrate their accomplishments. The longtime publisher of UMOJA magazine put more than a few guests on the spot, asking anyone who owned a black business to come forward and say a few words about their work. As one guest noted, “You don’t say no to Ms. Milele.”
Anana explains later, “My job — my ministry — is to connect and encourage people to pursue their dreams.”
About 140 people gathered Saturday night at the Goodman Community Center to dine on fried catfish, collard greens and sweet potato pie and to celebrate the life and work of Anana, 83, who through UMOJA has tirelessly promoted only positive news about Madison’s black community since 1990 — weddings, school graduations, recognitions, promotions. That’s to counter the mostly negative and one-dimensional, portrayal of African Americans in mainstream media, says Anana. “Back in the ’80s we were always criminals or athletes. Or what I’d call the ‘super Negro’ — someone with five PhDs.”
Outside the dining hall is an exhibit of UMOJA covers, which Anana has used to promote black artists. The magazines have become keepsakes to Edith Hilliard, who has a copy of every single issue. She told dinner guests she recently carted boxes of the magazine to her new condo, despite her son’s protests. “Who could throw out an UMOJA magazine?” she asked.
A civil rights activist and black business leader, Anana is also a former city of Madison affirmative action officer and the first African American elected to the Madison school board.
She grew up in Tulsa, frustrated with a life constrained by Jim Crow. “You could not go to a public park, public library, let alone eat in a public restaurant,” she recalls. “About three-quarters of life was cut off for you.”
She went to college in Alabama, before moving to Roxbury, outside of Boston, where public accommodations were more accessible, but, she says, “You couldn’t get a job. So it was very frustrating again.” She went by Betty at the time, was married and had two kids (she’d eventually have three more and move to Madison with her then husband, James Latimer, now a professor emeritus at UW-Madison). One day, in 1963, she was pushing a grocery cart, and a man said, “Hey sis, you want to go to the march?”
She reported to the designated street corner the next night and headed to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by Martin Luther King Jr. “I got on a bus with strangers. I had no credit card and did not really know where I was going. There was no food on the bus and no schedule.” The bus had to stop at black churches for meals, because restaurants along the way would not serve black diners.
“I went to the march with a determination,” she says. “I tell young people today, I knew they were coming and doors had to be open for them.”
Anana is slowing down these days, doing dialysis three times a week, but she is legendary for her energy, especially at UMOJA, where she does much of the work herself — taking photos, writing stories and selling ads. Kay Simmons remembers attending the first inauguration of Barack Obama with her: “I had to come back to the hotel and sleep, but she went to everything.”
When Anana served as the city’s affirmative action officer from 1974 to 1979, she worked with then Police Chief David Couper to increase the number of people of color and women on the force. In 1972, Couper says, there was one black police officer and seven women — the women, however, could not handle a gun and were not eligible for a promotion.
“I looked at her as an ally,” he says. “We had a lot of people who were not willing to play on our team. People forget how tough the integration of police and fire [departments] was at that point. She was a good fighter for justice and women’s rights and civil rights.”
Anana says Madison still falls short in providing good employment for its black residents. “The biggest problem we have is jobs,” she says. “There are just not opportunities for our young professionals to grow here and seek their potential. Many of them leave.”
But, in looking back on a long career, she feels she has made progress in “revolutionizing the way black people are represented” in the local media. “Reporters nowadays try to become more inclusive. Media has advanced in Madison where other institutions haven’t.”
Presenters: The alumni chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, the Mt. Zion Levites Choir, Judge Everett Mitchell
Number of UMOJA issues: 294
Definition of “umoja”: Swahili for “unity”
Anana’s favorite cover art: “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” by Gilbert Young