Lines of Character

By Kate Bast, Lisa Bauer, Marni McEntee & Rachel Werner  |  Photographed by Hillary Schave

Meet four strong women of a certain vintage who have lived lives less ordinary, in and through times that were anything but. They share lessons for us all.

Milele Chikasa Anana | Publisher, Umoja Magazine | Age: 82

One afternoon more than 50 years ago, Milele Chikasa Anana was pushing her grocery cart home in Boston. A man stopped to ask if she’d be interested in going to a civil rights march. “I went home, put my groceries away, got a babysitter then got on a bus at 11 p.m. I had no suitcase, didn’t know anyone, when we’d come back, or even where exactly we were going.” The yellow bus took them to the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest rallies in U.S. history, demanding civil and economic rights for African-Americans.

“I just went on faith,” says Anana, adding that they stopped along the way to eat at black churches because they were unwelcome elsewhere. “When I talk to young people today about it, I say, ‘I went to that march because I knew you were coming. I knew you would be in medical school, you would have a job at AT&T, you would be in college. I knew you were coming and we had to open up these opportunities for you.’”

Anana has spent a lifetime blazing trails. Nationally, she worked early on in the IT industry and the corporate world. Locally, she’s paved the way in city government positions and as the first African-American in the state to serve on a school board for Madison public schools.

She’s most well-known as publisher of Umoja magazine. Started in 1990, Umoja shares positive news about the African-American community in Madison. For 26 years, Anana has collected countless stories on health, jobs, events, scholarships, entertainment, weddings, reunions. She uses original art by local, national and international African-Americans on each magazine cover. One of her many awards includes a Madison city resolution commending her community contributions as publisher on Umoja’s 25th anniversary. President Obama called her backstage at a Madison event when he saw a copy of Umoja in her hands. She attended both of his inaugurations.

Anana grew up poor in a segregated Oklahoma town, but she said her African-American community there was strong: “Parents, teachers, business people, the whole community worked to love and support us.” Blacks were refused rights given to white people, but she adds, “If I was denied, [white people] were denied, too. White people have to recognize that they are short-changed when the black community is underserved. They have to realize that I have a history of slavery but whites have a history of holding slaves. We have to get to that understanding in order to heal together.”

Talking about local disparities between blacks and whites, Anana is compassionate but firm: “Madison is like every other community, it needs to take a strong look at itself and develop the will to solve problems of discrimination and the achievement gap. We have the money and the resources. But we have to have this overarching passion for diversity. The black community is doing a great job of healing itself but the white community must step up.”

A powerful, graceful presence, Anana urges people to work for social justice while being grounded in love, for yourself and others. “I’ve learned the greatest gift you can give yourself is peace, to pursue peace and surround yourself with harmonious things. Those things that agitate you, negative people, you have to release them or you will be an angry person,” she says. “That’s one reason why I started Umoja, to notice good things in the community.”

Anana bathed herself in love and warmth on one chilly September day, sitting in her family room under a blanket surrounded by African-American art on walls and shelves. Three generations of her family move in and out of the room to care for her and intently listen to wisdom and wit emanating from their matriarch. “Family is absolutely the most important thing in the world for me,” she says, noting she has five children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “I’m grateful to have them, to love them and play with them. Probably the best moments in my life have been just solitude with my family.”

Anana plans to continue to play with her grandkids. She also hopes to compile the history of black Madison, as well as her own family history. She adds, “Depressed and angry people don’t want to do anything. This positive energy is what keeps me moving.” – Lisa Bauer


EXERCISE EVERY DAY ALL YOUR LIFE: It doesn’t make a difference as to how much or how little.

POSITIVE THOUGHTS BRING POSITIVE ENERGY: Positive energy surrounds you with faith, a love of self, respect for others, a can-do attitude and a sense of joy for the beauty of each day.

GIVE ONE PART OF YOUR LIFE TO SOMEBODY ELSE AS LONG AS YOU CAN, a child, a parent, a neighbor, a friend, a stranger. You’ll never regret it.

LEARN EARLY IN LIFE TO CONTROL YOUR FINANCES. If you can’t manage $100, you can’t manage $1 million.

MEASURE YOUR LIFE WITH A YARDSTICK OF KINDNESS: I try to temper what I say with kindness. I try to approach another person with kindness.

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