She appeared in the office wearing a long, flowered skirt with a lite yellow top that matched the flowers in her skirt. Standing erect she turned her shoulders slightly to address Marie, my office manager and stated: “I am Milele Chikasa Anana, publisher and editor of UMOJA Magazine.” The statement carried a pinch of pride.
“I’m here to see Mr. Butler,” Associate Dean of the Art Department,” she continued.
She took a half step forward to fold her arms, one over the other, and lean on the chest-high counter designed to be a surface for students to take notes or place their books, and waited for a response.
“Just a minute.” Marie said, as she stepped quickly to the door of my office whispering, “You have a Ms. Milele here to see you.”
I didn’t know what she wanted, nor did my office manager. Milele, peeping around Marie to speak directly to me, spoke up for herself: “Hi Jerry, got a minute?”
“Sure,” I said, shutting my computer screen down as I always did when talking to students. “How can I help?”
Milele: “I’m the owner and editor of UMOJA Magazine, a Black owned enterprise for the purpose of lifting up Black people and highlighting the many power-positive and vibrate stories they have to tell. My plan is to tell these stories along with the presentation of Black art from local artist. This way I feel the content will be rich and exciting within our community. I would like you to do the Kwanzaa cover for the magazine this year.”
I countered with, “I don’t do realism.”
Milele said she was familiar with my work after reading my book Sweet Words So Brave. Feeling a bit more at ease I found myself unable to say no. Milele then gave me a copy of the Kwanzaa Principles and explained each of them right then and there.
At this point the only thing remaining to be settled was money. It was brilliant how she approached my fee. First, she stated, “I am more than eager to offer you a very nice stipend that would only be fair. Right?”
“Right!” I replied.
“But I could not pay that nice stipend I offered you because I have no money,” Milele said. Feeling somewhat deflated, I said “so as I see it no money for my fee, right.”
“Right,” she said without hesitation. “I will provide you with three copies of the magazine, and a yearly subscription.”
“Ok, deal.” I said, thinking this would be a one-time thing that would give me an opportunity to have people see my work.
My first image for the cover fell flat with Milele. I could see the disappointment in her face as she tried to explain what she had in mind for the first cover. She begins to jump around the office demonstrating the exuberance she wanted in the image. I snapped a photo of her and developed the image, which she loved. From this point on we had a dialogue from time to time on current issues facing the community. Only one other work was rejected during my 20-plus years doing the Kwanzaa covers for UMOJA.
By the third cover, I realized that I could follow Aaron Douglas and his use of the Crisis Magazine as an example of reflection and forward leadership for the Black community. I introduced this idea to Milele and she loved it. We never presented it to our audience as a design for the structure of the covers.
Often, we would talk for hours about family, the community and the state of affairs, and life in America for Black folk. Milele always supported my work and me, even during dark times in my life, never wavering when others scattered.