A Conversation with Blair Imani

The activist/author flips the script on how we see history—and insists Rihanna stays in the picture.

Blair Imani

With a radical, inclusive approach to history, Blair Imani’s Modern HERstory profiles and celebrates seventy women and nonbinary champions of progressive social change in a bold, colorful, illustrated format for all ages. Despite making huge contributions to the liberation movements of the last century, all of these trailblazers come from backgrounds and communities that are traditionally overlooked and under-celebrated: not just women, but people of color, queer people, trans people, disabled people, young people, and people of faith. Authored by a rising star activist, Modern HERstory tells the important stories of the leaders and movements that are changing the world right here and right now—and will inspire you to do the same.

Recently, Blair spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright, touching on everything from her earliest activist beginnings to the power in championing little-known heroes and keeping your integrity intact.

READ IT FORWARD: Tell me a little bit about your path to activism. You’re the Founder and Executive Director of Equality For Her, a nonprofit that provides health, and education, and resources for all who identify as women, and non-binary folks as well. How did you get started?

BLAIR IMANI: I grew up listening to Motown hits, everything by Stevie Wonder, everything by Marvin Gaye. That song War, ‘what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.’ So, I feel like I was high-key indoctrinated with this idea of positive messages, human rights, and the idea that you can change the world and be part of a community that works towards a better future.

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My parents are very much activists. My mom always wanted to make sure there were diverse voices included, herself being a light-skinned black woman who is almost white passing, always using her privilege to uplift people of darker hues and people who might not be heard otherwise. My father works in mental health, he has an organization which is an alternative to the lock and key mental health institutions which have really become more commonplace than what should be, the alternative being prison or homelessness.

Growing up in that type of environment, where inclusion and recognizing that difference is not something to be feared, but something to be honored and uplifted, is really what shaped my entire world view, and that thread of trying to uplift different voices is directly why I wanted to write this book in the first place.

RIF: Let’s talk about Modern HERstory. You write in the forward that history is often written by those who have power and privilege, and it often overlooks or erases the contributions of those who are less powerful and less privileged. Why was it so important to fill your book full of these incredible stories, and with this idea that these under-looked people that need to be brought into the spotlight?

BI: That’s kind of been my whole life, in fact. I was writing a piece about it today, actually. You’re in history class and you’re catching a pattern, maybe around third grade, where you’re like, “Hmm, white man hero after white man hero, after white… Hmm.” Where was everybody else? I see that they’re in the paintings? I see that they have contributions, and I see that in my current state of the world everybody’s pitching in, and it’s not just white man hero after white man hero. So what’s the truth? It’s like when kids start to get wise about the Tooth Fairy or Santa, and they’re like, “Mom, what is this really about?”

That’s why I didn’t really like history. I hated history up until fifth grade, because every time we would learn about people who looked like me or my family, it was in the context of slavery and I felt like there was a huge magnifying glass on me every time the teacher would say “African-Americans”. And I don’t know, am I supposed to smile? Am I supposed to nod? I had some teachers who would say things like, “If it wasn’t for Martin Luther King Jr., Blair wouldn’t be in class with us.” And it’s like, shut up.

RIF: Oh my God.

BI: And then the ahistoricalness of it, people feeling like my family had endured slavery just ten days ago. “Your family went through that? Oh my gosh.” It’s muddled in these inaccurate portrayals of the black community, but also realizing it’s not just the black community. Chinese Americans who built the railroad were excluded from being able to enter the United States after they had “served their purpose” in productivity, not being able to enter the United States on their own grounds but only under the guise of providing into this capitalist machine. So, the Chinese community being left out, the indigenous community being erased, except for the film Pocahontas, which is awful.

RIF: Terrible.

BI: I’m basically dragging the entire education system. So, I wanted to provide solutions and I thought the way to do that would be to flip the script. There are books where you’ll have 50 heroes, but it’ll be a large amount of white women, and often not modern people who are doing work in the present day. I was telling somebody recently that, “You know how you’ll read a book and there will be four black women?” Well, in this book there’s like four white women, and that really ruffled a lot of feathers with other publishers. We got 17 rejections total, which I carry as a badge of honor ’cause there are people who said everything from, “Missy Elliot is not a feminist hero,” to, “Why is Rihanna in the book?” And I was like, “You’re both cancelled.”

RIF: Okay.

BI: It’s really challenging that idea of who is a hero, who has made contributions to society, but then also not historicizing it, so we’re really putting it in the present because that’s what modern media is so much about. You’re seeing the generational gaps between me and somebody four years younger than me. We don’t even have the same memes. We don’t even use the same apps.

It’s very much about the present and the now, and I wanted to document that in a book. I’m very glad that Kaitlin Ketchum from Ten Speed took a chance on us, because even during our meeting I had said, “There are so many great, amazing, empowering and diverse books, but so few of them are written by black women.” I thought I was throwing the interview away, but she was like, “You’re right.”

RIF: Yeah, and I feel like over and over we see the same women. We see a Sally Ride, Madame Curie, Harriet Tubman.

BI: And I’m big fans of them.

RIF: Exactly, but what I love about your book is that I go to the contents and I don’t recognize that many names, which is so cool. It’s so accessible to be able to dive into these stories.

BI: And that’s what books are for, right? You’re supposed to be learning from books. It’s not supposed to be a review of materials that you knew before, but I felt like so often during Black History Month, we’d be saying, “We’re going to recite the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech again? You know he had other hits, right?” Or, “We’re going to color in Rosa Parks? Oh, well there was a woman who came before her who, because she was dark-skinned, didn’t get the praise that Rosa Parks got.”

It really was harmful because it makes it feel for women, for LGBTQ folks, for even white men too, that there are only these tokens and that’s not the case. What it does is reinforce white supremacy, it reinforces patriarchy. It’s harmful to everyone, not just the people who are being erased.

RIF: I love that Modern HERstory is illustrated in a way that makes it very appealing for a reader of any age. I’m 33 and I loved it, but I think a 12-year-old could be just as into it, and same with a 65 year old. Who did you collaborate with on the art? Tell me the story of how that came about.

BI: So, shout out to Twitter. We actually did a panel at Twitter recently, and the whole thing could have been sponsored, but that’s how I connected with Monique Le. I didn’t know how young she was when I reached out to her. I’d commissioned her to do some illustrations for my nonprofit, Equality For Her, and she was like, “Okay, I just want to have my dad look at the contract.” And I was like, “Okay, that’s fine. By the way, not to breach any legal things, but how old are you?” She said, “Oh I’m 19.” And I was like, “What?” It’s funny, because that’s usually the reaction I get from people. But again, it was so inspiring to see somebody who’s so brilliantly talented and who isn’t even doing art full-time. She did these illustrations during her exam periods.

I was telling that story at the Twitter panel, and her parents are in the back of the room looking horrified. I was like, “Oh, maybe not everything should be said,” but we really got through it together and it was a very emotional process. When we’re learning about people like Lorraine Hansberry or Sylvia Rivera, we were reading and watching these archival materials and realizing how little opportunity these women had to tell their own stories when they were alive.

There was one archive material around Marsha P. Johnson and the way that they spoke about her was so negative. We tried to get in touch with other folks, like Miss Major who did provide an interview, somebody who was a contemporary of hers who was a black trans woman.
It’s really important to describe your own legacy, to name yourself, to not only honor the past that you’ve come from, but to create the legacy that’s going to come forward and that legacy not just being children, being a house, not just being a fortune so you can bankroll a couple libraries, but to look at it in a more expansive way. Who are you educating? Who are you touching? What good works are you doing? What inspiring words have you left behind? With this book, it was powerful to have those emotional conversations with Monique about, “Wow, what would she have said?” Lorraine Hansberry never came out in her lifetime as a queer woman, but did exhibit or lived a life of a queer woman. I wanted to talk about life and history in the present and drive home the idea that history isn’t made in black and white. It’s made in full color, which is why these full color illustrations are so important to bring it to life.

RIF: God, now I have chills. Do you have any stories that you’d like to highlight? I know you divide up your chapters into different sections. There’s a media section, an activism section, I know Dr. Roxane Gay is in here. Do you have any sort of stories that you want to shout out to, or are they all special?

BI: Let me talk about Jackie Aina, if you watch her YouTube videos, and if you don’t…

RIF: Start.

BI: Okay, so she is a makeup artist and humanitarian. She’s the best ever. She came to my book launch in L.A. and I almost didn’t send the invite ’cause I was so shy. I’m a huge fan of Jackie, let’s be real. She actually donated to our crowdfunding campaign back when we were still trying to figure out can we do a book?

Essentially, Jackie Aina has revolutionized the makeup industry by talking about dark-skinned women and talking about colorism, forcing the industry to put their money where their values are. If they care about dark-skinned women, if they care about consumers of different hues, then they need to create products. It’s so beautiful to me because she never gave up her integrity, and I feel like in this capitalist society we’re so often told to sell our souls in order to excel. “Remove Rihanna from the book. Remove Missy Elliot from…” “No. You can have it all.” She used the power of her upbringing, being a Nigerian Black American, being somebody who has experienced struggles and challenges in her life, and then creating something beautiful out of it. She was awarded the NAACP Image Award. She’s up for a People’s Choice Award this year, and she’s continuing to glow up but people would tell her, “Oh, Jackie, you can’t get far in this industry, if you’re going to criticize the industry.” The industry now works with her.

I often see videos where people will send her a shade range and there is no shade for her. She’ll say, “Okay, well this didn’t work out, but it was a great texture. Here’s my email. Let’s connect.” She is very solution-oriented, but she’s still villainized a lot in the industry. She is not somebody who is going to do a review for a review’s sake. You’re not going to send her free products and get a free review.

RIF: She won’t get distracted by the shiny coins.

BI: Exactly. You’re going to get her actual take, and she reviews everything from $125 palettes to drugstore palettes because she wants to make sure that everybody can feel beautiful. I recently learned that she goes to homeless shelters for women and does beauty makeovers for Mother’s Day.

RIF: Oh my God. I’m going to cry.

BI: She’s just so pure and gracious and I think she’s somebody who really demonstrates that you can achieve things in the world and still stick to your roots, because it’s very easy to stray from your roots. You’re told to at every turn, “Don’t bring this with you. Oh, that’s baggage.” But Jackie Aina really demonstrates that you can retain yourself, you can retain your integrity, your community, and still excel. And she’s still continuing to glow up. She’s amazing.

Featured photo © Syranno 2017

About Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Senior Editor of Read It Forward. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.

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