Rethink everything you’ve learned in history class, and introduce yourself to herstory. After she realized that the history many of us have been taught was seriously flawed, critically-acclaimed historian Blair Imani dedicated her career to educating folks and opening people’s eyes to the systematic oppression that endangers marginalized individuals today.
Unequivocally dedicated in her pursuit to dismantle systems of oppression, she has authored the books “Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History” and “Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and The Black American Dream” all while educating the public on institutionalized bigotry via Patreon. Needless to say, as a prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, she is catalyzing conversations about race, gender, and equality in the new, current age of reckoning.
Imani is the role model we look up to and inspire to be. In speaking about what it means to recognize and acknowledge one’s privilege, her duty as a public educator in the aftermath of George Floyd, and striving to make the world a better place for everyone, she has inspired all of us to do our part.
You are a critically acclaimed historian, an outspoken advocate and activist, and a dynamic public speaker. You are the author of two historical books: “Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History” and “Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and The Black American Dream.” But take us back to the beginning—what was the lightbulb moment for your career and what inspired you to pursue this path?
There is a lot of discussion about how many women, especially Black women, are entering the entrepreneurial field. But there is little discussion or accounting for the fact that it’s because a lot of us are being pushed out of traditional career paths or being prevented from progressing like our more privileged counterparts. My last 9-to-5 job was at a place that did not encourage growth or advancement, so I decided to take a risk and start speaking full-time thanks to encouragement from my speaking agent Sean Lawton. I may very well still be doing a 9 to 5 path if it had been a viable one for me. In 2018, I pivoted from being an advocate to focusing more on my history education offerings. This became a permanent career move following the events of the summer and the increased awareness in the need for anti-racist and intersectional education.
Your work centers around women and girls, global Black communities, and the LGBTQIA+ community. You also offer educational resources via Patreon and provide publicly accessible weekly lessons on Instagram. Can you tell us more about how you are making a difference and pushing your industry forward?
My industry is the educational field, and as of today, it is a largely exclusive one. We get curriculums approved at the state levels, and teachers are not always able to supplement this curriculum with things that capture important current events. In other cases, our students are forced to learn from the same three publishers of textbooks, some of which discuss enslaved people as “workers”, or characterize the Civil War as something that wasn’t fought surrounding the rights for states to enslave people. This is extremely harmful because we do not get to a place of social unrest organically; we have a great deal of people who are uneducated about the state of the world, and I am striving to change that.
2020 presented everybody around the globe with new, unprecedented challenges. How did you #FindNewRoads + switch gears towards your new version of success?
I think for a long time I was waiting for the world to unpause. It hadn’t fully hit me that we are living in a pandemic, and it wouldn’t be as bad as it is if we had better leadership. And so, I was just kind of frozen playing Animal Crossing. Unfortunately, with the tragic murder of George Floyd, and increased awareness of cases like Layleen Polanco, Breonna Taylor, and others, there was an increased need for anti-racism education. That is something I’ve been doing for quite a while, and so, I did my best to step into the moment, and I continue to do so. It’s very conflicting to be in a position where the need for your work came from such a place of tragedy, but I am honored to be able to do my best.
Going after what you deserve in life takes confidence and guts. Does confidence come naturally to you or did you have to learn it? What advice can you share for women on cultivating confidence and going after their dreams?
Going after what you deserve in life actually takes access and privilege because we live in systems of oppression. Black people who have been dying at disproportionate rates during coronavirus didn’t lack confidence and ambition: they lacked access to healthcare. The same goes for our Indigenous siblings who are experiencing the same thing, so I think it’s really important to reformulate this conversation into one that accounts for the access gap and the systems of oppression that prevent people from being successful. Personally, I believe that confidence comes organically to all humans that have a support system at the right time and in the right ways. But just like imposter syndrome isn’t an invention of the mind but instead enforced through media education and other systems, confidence is also denied to people based on their relationships with systems of oppression.
Before you can go after your dreams, you have to assess the things in your way. Is it the patriarchy? Is it homophobia? Is it ableism or fatphobia? Once you assess these things, it is important to take stock of how they relate to you and how you can circumvent them. Does that mean changing policies that prevent you from being able to succeed? Does that mean organizing your peers to completely shift the system? We have to understand that who is and is not allowed to reach their dreams is extremely unfair, and it doesn’t have to be like this. So, I encourage everyone to stop feeling as though their lack of self-confidence and esteem are our personal failures, but instead, the effective systems of oppression that not only prevent us from being able to thrive but being able to love ourselves.
How have you remained true and authentic to who you are and what advice can you share for women who are struggling with that?
If you’re struggling with being able to be yourself, there’s likely a reason for that. It's much harder to live a different version of yourself than it is to just be yourself 24/7. So, we have to account for many different things. For example, if you’re an LGBTQ person, and you can’t be out and proud, don’t feel bad about it. It’s not your fault that we live in a homophobic and transphobic society that denies people their life and their truths.
When the entire world is telling you that you shouldn’t exist, and you feel less important than other people, that’s not on you: that’s on the world.
It’s easy to celebrate the wins, but how do you handle failure or when something hasn’t worked out for you?
I would say it’s hard to celebrate the wins especially if you are someone who has been prevented from feeling like success is due or that success is possible. There are so many people who have been prevented from realizing a good future because our role models have been erased. In terms of how I handle failure, I always learn something from it. The first thing is to make sure you prepare yourself to such an extent that failure is no longer within your control. Meaning, the ball is in somebody else’s court, and whether or not something works out is not because you could’ve done more, but because it wasn’t the right fit for something.
When I was pitching “Modern Herstory,” I had 17 rejections. My product was excellent, but much of the market was not prepared for a book that centered on BIPOC women and non-binary people. So, when something is rejected or something doesn’t work, know that it is something you define. Not the world. Because I could’ve been under the impression that it was my fault without understanding that gatekeepers were preventing me from publishing. Of course, “Modern Herstory” got published, and now, I’m on my way to writing my third book. It's not because there was something wrong with me; it’s because of the system.
What is the biggest work challenge or mistake you’ve faced? What did you learn from it?
I don’t necessarily always have the privilege to mess up in ways that folks with more access are able to do. So, I really have to keep my mistakes to a minimum. It's very difficult, and I’m—by no means—a perfect person. But, if I make a blunder, I am judged, and so is my entire community, unlike a white straight woman, for example, who is judged as an individual. There are often discussions about working twice as hard to be half as recognized, and that’s probably the biggest challenge I’ve experienced. And it has nothing to do with me but the way that my identities relate to systems of oppression that existed hundreds of years before I was even thought of.
With success comes opportunity, but that also means you have your hands full. What keeps you inspired and motivated to keep going even on your most challenging days?
Today, I have 300,000 students, and that is a blessing—just like learning is a blessing. I am motivated by the opportunity that it holds. I mean, I educate a group of people the size of Anchorage Alaska. That’s massive. And that’s more people that I have a direct influence on than I ever could’ve thought possible, and that’s a great responsibility. So, it’s having a sense of that responsibility and duty that keeps me motivated to always give my best and be patient—even when I want to shout.
What's the one productivity tip or work hack that truly changed your life?
I’ll give you two: getting sober and making sure that my mental health is on point at all times. That means regularly taking my medication, going to meetings to maintain my sobriety, and working with a therapist and a psychiatrist. Because you could have 20 assistants, but if you’re not maintaining a healthy mind frame to be at your best, then you won’t get much done.
What is the #1 book you always recommend and why?
Reclaiming Your Space by Feminista Jones.
If you want to understand Black women and our contributions, look no further. Feminista Jones has taught me so much in regards to my analysis on race and gender.
If you could go back to the beginning of your career journey—with the knowledge you have now— what advice would you give yourself?
Ask for more money. Negotiate more. And BUDGET!
Fill in the blanks:
I turn bad days around by…
Taking a little nap and starting a new day!
If there were more hours in the day…
I would sleep more.
The three qualities that got me to where I am today are…
Privilege, integrity, and access.
The change I’d like to see in my industry is…
A complete acknowledgment of how systems of oppression are reinforced through education and how reeducation can solve them.
My perfect day begins with…
Talking to God.