She walked with a sense of purpose into the entrance of Mirror Image hair salon on Madison’s Eastside.
Her air of confidence and intentional strut directed her to make a B-line to the owner.
“Why are you not advertising in UMOJA magazine?” asked the assertive woman. “We need your support.”
Before he could answer, she overheard a couple of women under the dryer talking about their frustrations with interracial dating. The most recent edition of Essence magazine’s 1991 edition featured an article exploring the topic of love and relationships for Black women inside its pages. The two women talking were riffing on the challenges they experienced in romance.
“Young man, what does cream do to coffee?” Ms. Milele asked me, her eyes piercing right through me.
All I came to the salon to do was get a haircut. Now, I feel like I’m a talk show guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show or Donahue.
“Cream makes coffee lighter,” I replied back.
Without missing the inquisitive and assertive women said, “Cream dilutes and weakens the coffee. That’s exactly what white women do to our Black men.”
That was my introduction to Ms. Milele Chikasa Anana, the creative force and publisher of UMOJA Magazine as a 16 years-old second semester sophomore at Robert M. LaFollette High School.
Next time I saw her was during the second half of my senior year. Ms. Milele placed a photo of me and my dad in UMOJA after she received word that I was awarded a four-year scholarship from American Family Insurance to attend Howard University.
When I transferred to the University of Wisconsin, she offered me an internship after my time as a cub reporter with the Madison Times Weekly Newspaper came to an end. My internship at UMOJA was more than an academic learning experience.
Ms. Milele poured a series of lessons into me on life, entrepreneurship and professionalism.
I will never forget when she held me hostage up in her home to complete a feature story on village elders Blossom Maiden and Eunice Trotter.
I was way beyond my deadline after she already gave me an extension. She had to get the magazine to the printer in the morning.
“You’re staying right here until you complete this story,” she ordered.
Must say I ate good. Both she and Ms. Dana Warren, the magazine’s graphic and layout designer, made sure I had proper provisions to work well into the wee hours of morning. On that day, I learned how critical it is to follow through and finish tasks on deadline.
When I graduated and landed a gig as a reporter for Topics Newspapers, a division of Central Newspapers, Inc. that is now owned by Gannett Co., Ms. Milele had a strong word of caution for me.
“You are about to enter into the swamp,” she said on my induction into the adulthood and the competitive world of news media. “The thing about being in the swamp is that you never know where the alligators are. Just know they are in there with you. Be ready to protect yourself when they rise up to bite.”
One of my biggest supporters and admirers of my work, Ms. Milele became a mother figure to me. When life knocked me down, she was among the guides there to provide a safe and soft place to land.
Even in the second chapter of my life as an accomplished man in my mid-forties, she encourages me to aim and reach higher to fulfill the highest expression of my humanity. I am a better man because of her investment of time and attention in Umoja. The publication is her love letter to Madison’s black community.
“It is never the right time to get married, have a baby, go to college or launch a business,” she said last year during a trip home to Madison. “You simply start where you are and do it!”