I thought my heart would thump straight out of my chest the first time I walked into Milele Chikasa Anana’s home on Madison’s east side. Should I curtsy? Grab and hug her tight? I wasn’t sure what to do.
She is, after all, someone who has spent a lifetime blazing trails. She’s someone who won’t allow stupidity to be an excuse for racism. And, she’s someone whose Swahili name, Milele, means forever, everlasting and eternal. This all caused a split-second pause to attempt to run in the other direction.
I just didn’t want to disappoint her.
I was invited in her home and the moment she said hello, with her reassuring voice laced with power and grace, my nerves began to settle. I handed her a potted flower and she smiled. At 85, she is beautiful with silver hair, almond eyes and wisdom wrinkles.
Days before meeting this larger-than-life community icon and civil rights soldier, I was repeated warned that I had big shoes to fill. In my mind, I knew taking the role of publisher and editor for UMOJA Magazine was right where God wanted me to be. I felt I just needed to convince Ms. Milele to feel the same way.
After being invited to take a seat in the kitchen, I was enveloped by the collections of African art all around her home. Her four-legged child, Gracie, wanted to jump on my lap to be smothered with belly rubs. I remember thinking, if her dog likes me, perhaps she will, too.
Dana Warren, her longtime friend and cherished magazine volunteer was there, as was Lily Komino, her assistant who greeted me with a warm hug. We exchanged pleasantries before getting down to the business before us. I wanted to raise my right hand as if taking a solemn oath swearing to maintain the legacy of the publication she birthed and nourished tirelessly since 1992.
“Tell me this, will you continue to put art on the cover?” Milele asked.
“Yes, I will,” I vowed.
With a slight nod, she managed another smile and asked Lily to make me a bowl of soup.
Like a child sitting at her grandmother’s feet, I absorbed all the knowledge I could, trying not to appear frightened by the mountain of tasks awaiting me. As my mentor, the living legend began schooling me in publication deadlines, advertising placement, and content that truly matters. We went over accounts and must-attend community events. I scribbled nearly every pointer down in an entire notebook. I tend to giggle to shake of my nerves, but there was no time for that.
“Develop a thick skin and never let anyone take advantage of you,” Milele warned. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I respectfully replied.
A week later, an indelible memory happened the first time she led me to where UMOJA was nurtured month-after-month, year-after-year. We walked past collectables of All God’s Children figurines, including Fredrick Douglass, Buffalo Soldiers and beautiful, brown-skinned brides. Wooden tribal masks hang on the walls next to photos of President Barrack Obama. Towering wooden-carved statues stood in formation around the living room.
As we began to descend stairs towards her home office, a framed artist rendering of Harriet Tubman watched over us.
“My work is done, my work is done,” Milele whispered.
Then it hit me. Ms. Milele channels the intent, emotion and intelligence of Harriet Tubman. It was in that instance that I realized I was in the presence of a kindred spirit. The Underground Railroad leader is my shero.
My eyes widened with amazement to the treasure-trove of history ꟷ Madison’s Black history ꟷ stored in her office. Puffed with pride, I humbly accepted the torch to lead UMOJA and named Ms. Milele publisher emeritus.