“First, to dispel your myth about Madison having no middle class,” said Milele Chikasa Anana, as she slid a recent copy of Umoja magazine across the table, “this edition is about strong black women. Here’s one who’s a scientist. Here’s another running for school board; she has three degrees. Here’s another story about black women who are ministers in Madison.”
“Just the idea that in a city with a relatively low number of black people…to have this many women that have degrees and are ministering—that says something about our community’s black middle class.”
“There is nothing about poverty in here,” she said, “so let’s set that aside, too. I don’t have to write about poverty in the black community. White publications are doing enough of that already.”
Umoja is a 22-year-old magazine which focuses on positive news and social justice in Madison’s African-American community. On Monday I met with Ms. Milele, the magazine’s publisher, in order to discuss local poverty and racial disparities. Over the past month, as background to the ongoing conversation of how we should address Madison’s achievement gap, I’ve been looking closely at data from Madison’s neighborhood indicators project.
I’ve seen that many areas of town that have the highest numbers of families living in poverty, also have the highest concentrations of African-Americans. In one neighborhood, south-side Madison’s Waunona-Bridge-Lakepoint, 22.55 percent of families are living in poverty. Yet, oddly enough, the neighborhood has a 3.2 percent unemployment rate–safely below Madison’s average. What’s happening?
Armed with these questions, and the documents to support it, I met Ms. Milele at the student union. Luckily, before we met, I had gotten a tip from a great woman, Fabu Carter, who recently relinquished her duties as Madison’s poet laureate.
“Mario,” she said, “I’ll give you your first piece of advice. Don’t address her by her first name. She’s an elder, she’s well-respected, you’re going to want to address her as Ms. Milele. Showing proper respect is important. Secondly, stay away from the word “minority.” From one writer to another, you’re going to want to get that out of your lexicon right now.”
Point taken. Even so, as you might have guessed from the top of the story, the conversation I had with Ms. Milele didn’t go exactly how I’d imagined…
“These men and women we profile in Umoja are educated and strong,” said Ms. Milele. “People who have degrees are not poor—they may not be wealthy—but generally, they’re not…destitute.”
“Are there poor black people in Madison? Yes. There are poor black people everywhere. But the reason we’re poor isn’t because we don’t value education. On the contrary. The first thing the honorable slaves did when they were given freedom was to establish schools—and always say honorable when you’re talking about slaves, because they were honorable people. Our culture has always valued education above almost anything else,” she said.
“We may not have some of the resources that many white people have, but this doesn’t mean we don’t value education and try to instill middle class values in our children,” said Milele.
With most of my interviews, the dialogue takes on a Q&A format. Few people, especially experts, want to say more than they’re asked, and I try to plan my quesions in order to mine that one candid quote. Yet, with Ms. Milele, I sensed my role was better accomplished the less I said. Besides, Ms. Milele is a speaker, a storyteller, and I’ve always loved listening.
“The problem is that white people only see us through three lenses: poverty, incompetence, or in terms of a problem,” said Ms. Milele. “Every time they talk about us, it’s in terms of a problem to be solved. They group people of color together and they paint us as victims.”
“The white community has this conversation about the achievement gap, and they think about how they can reach ‘poor’ black or Spanish-speaking children. In this ever globalizing world, we still see the other as a problem instead of an asset,” said Ms. Milele. “Our children of color are the assests, and they’re right here in front of us.”
“And white people don’t own up to their part in the existing disparities. They don’t want to talk about why these disparities exist in the first place. Why does a black man, for example, with the same education as a white man, make less money when he enters the workforce? Why are black people treated differently by the loan officer? It’s not a disparity problem. It’s an accountability problem,” she said.
The more Ms. Milele spoke, the more examples she gave, the sharper her tone became. Angry wouldn’t be the right word for her demeanor, it was closer to exasperation.
“And you’re lucky,” she told me, “because I don’t talk to reporters anymore. Every time I have this conversation with a white person, they ask me, ‘Ms. Milele, what’s the solution?’ Let me tell you this: black people are sick of trying to educate white people on what to do, because nobody listens, and nothing seems to change.”
“Ms. Milele,” I said, “I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I’m getting the sense that you think I’m part of the problem, just for coming to you on this story.”
“Yes,” she said, “I suppose I do. I don’t know exactly why I’m talking to you. Maybe it’s because I hope you might be a better bridge between the white and black community than I have been in this conversation. And in the end, I have faith that the good in white people will overcome these barriers to understanding and action.”
I thanked Ms. Milele for speaking with me and I promised to do my best to write a fair story. I can’t lie, I felt a little wounded by the interview, but it had been great experience. Besides, she’d bought me Babcock ice cream. Ms. Milele ordered vanilla. I got the peanut butter fudge.
Just as we were standing to leave, Dave Cieslewicz, Madison’s former mayor approached the table and hugged Ms. Milele.
“Dave,” said Ms. Milele, “this is Mario. He’s a reporter. I just asked him how it was to talk to me and he said it opened his mind, but in a painful way.”
Cieslewicz looked at me and laughed. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said.