If you asked me to describe Blair Imani in one word, I could not do it. There are so many perfect words to describe that electric energy, bottled up inside the beautiful, Blair Imani. Here are a few: Cute. Passionate. Smart. Funny. Razor sharp wit. Sprinkles, like the ones in her yogurt and cereal. Infectious giggler. Determined change-maker. Blair is so multi-faceted, and I had the fun privilege of interviewing her for BMGFly’s Friday Features. Where I found out her superpower. It was Blair’s choice to convert to Islam, that gave her a confidence that inspires her #BlackMuslimGirlFly Read what she had to say about being #BlackMuslimGirlFly:
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is defined as that “it” factor Black Muslim Girls & Women have that makes them amazing, dope, & fresh-to-death awesome. How would you describe your #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Blair Imani: Awkward nerdy girl, turned confident woman, that’s kind of my thing. I think when I first converted to Islam, it was kind of the first thing I did, that my parents weren’t totally on board with. Even when I got tattoos, even when I decided to go to school far away, even when I came out as queer, my parents were like, “Dope. Whatever.” But, when I converted to Islam, it was such a departure from what they were used to. But, I think converting, and trying to walk that line respecting my parents and doing something for me, gave me a confidence.
Team BMGFly: How did you grow into your Muslim identity? And, how does being a Black girl impact that? (Or, if you’re bi-racial, or of multi-ethnic heritage, how does that impact your Muslim identity?)
Blair: So, I grew up Christian, and when I converted it was during college, and it was really out of anti-blackness. I would be going to church, like a Baptist church. I would be at these Black churches, even. Or, like go into a white church, and it just felt like there was so much animosity for the people on the fringes of our society. And, what sticks with me is being in Louisiana, and seeing a homeless man sleeping outside of a Catholic church. That was so heartbreaking to me. That’s the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing. Then, I started learning about the King James Bible, and how that was intentionally written to teach people not to fight against oppression. And, I know that’s what Black people were given when we were forcibly brought to America. So, I started to become increasingly uncomfortable with Christianity.
Right around this time, the three young people (Deah, Yusor, and Razan) were killed in Chapel Hill. I called every mosque or Islamic center in Louisiana and said, “Hey, we’ve been doing stuff for #BlackLivesMatter, I want to do something for your community as well.” And, now (looking back,) I have all these emails that clearly state, “I’m not somebody who practices Islam, but I want to be here for your community.” And, less than a year later, I am somebody who practices Islam. I really benefitted from light-skinned privilege, because I was so quickly accepted into the community. People thought that I was Arab, or North African, and because of that, I think they were more accepting of me that they might have been to other people. Like darker-skinned Black women, because as soon as somebody found out that I am Black it was like a rift had developed between us. That’s before I became an emerging figure, as a Muslim.
“As I was dragged into the street an officer muttered, “Really give it to her.” I began screaming.” ~Blair Imani (Protesting following the death of Alton Sterling.)
I had always been an activist, before my Islam and into my finding Islam. But, there’s this disconnect that definitely exists, between me and the Black Islamic Heritage, because I didn’t grow up within that. So, I’m learning about it as I emerge into it. And so, I think that it frustrates people, outside of my circle, because their like, “Why doesn’t she pay homage to this folk, and to this person, and this person?” But, I’m very transparent about the fact that I’m learning. So, I still feel like, even connected to the Black church, to folks within the Black church as I do feel connected to folks like Black Muslims, because that’s the nexus point for me, more than the heritage. There’s a predominantly Black mosque right around the corner from me that I will be going to all of Ramadan. But, I traveled so much that I’m away from the mosque that I converted in, and then I moved to D.C., then in D.C. I moved again, and then I moved to New York and then again we moved here in New York, so most of my community is online. I’ve been criticized for being so visible online, but I don’t think I would have converted had I not been connected to other Muslims online. It’s that way, that I got to meet new people.
I took my Shahada May 29, 2015. June 5th was the last time I wore hijab in Baton Rouge because it just became so unsafe. I started wearing my hijab again on March 17, 2016. I had wanted to, since before I had converted even. I felt it was a beautiful way to reclaim my body, because I’m a survivor of sexual violence, and as a Black woman in the U.S., body autonomy has not been afforded to us. So for me, it was a really powerful way to be like, “This is mine.” Sometimes I don’t wear the scarf, because I never want to be in a space where I’m doing something because a community is telling me to.
Team BMGFly: How do you maneuver your industry as a Black Muslim Woman?
Blair: It’s frustrating. So, a year after I got arrested in Baton Rouge, I went on Fox News about to talk about countering violent extremism from the context of safe spaces, de-radicalization. If you surveil and police people, they’re going to just push them over to the margins. That’s just basic human psychology. So, I was talking about safe spaces for Muslims, what has been done in Australia is to divert that money for militarism and policing, into community spaces. So, I went on Fox to talk about that. I was talking about how queer people need safe spaces, to be free of hate violence. Black people need safe spaces to be free of police violence. And, then I was going to say and Muslims, but before I could even say that, Tucker Carlson said, “Well, you’re not here to speak on behalf of those communities.” And, I corrected him, and ended up coming out on national television as queer and Black and everything.
But, I was just sitting there thinking, “I’m so ‘Arab passing’ that people don’t think I’m Black.” And, maybe that’s why I get to be on TV, maybe…not even maybe, that’s part of the reason. So, there’s a lot of light-skinned privilege that comes along with being my shade, and stuff; which I try to be very aware of. It’s so indoctrinated, it’s easy to lose sight of, so a lot of people erase that. So, I’m constantly having to say, “And, Black. And, Black.” So, it’s complex. But, it’s not something I would ever let go of, to, you know, “go along, to get along.” Somebody corrected me, and was very strong about it. I can’t pass as white, but I can pass as Arab, depending upon what you think Arab means. But, I’m, for most people, pseudo-ethnic. Where I’m ‘foreign’ enough to feel familiar, but I’m light enough to “not be Black,” you know, to not have that “negativity.” Which is so complex because I’m so very pro-Black. Somebody even told me, “Well, why don’t you just stop talking about being Black.” And, I’m like, “What the heck?!”
My mom, her mother is white, and her father is Black and Puerto Rican. And, then, my father’s parents are both Black. But, growing up, I was never comfortable saying “bi-racial.” Like, there’s no bi-racial culture, you know what I mean? I guess there is, to an extent, but I thought it was rooted in trying to hide from Blackness. And, in my family, especially, on my mother’s father’s side, there were so many people who were “passe blanc,” or, you know, who was French Creole, and would pass for white to get work, and they would abandon their families. So, not claiming your Blackness has such a stigma in my household. We were very pro-Black, and very fiercely pro-Black. So, I’ve always described myself as Black. It wasn’t really until I got to the South, where I’d be like, “I’m Black.” And, people would be like, “And, what?” I’d be like, “And, why are you asking?” I’ve even been called militant for that stance, but it’s not like my white relatives are trying to claim me. For me, I already have the ‘light-skinned privilege,’ to be at this table. It feels so disingenuous for me to, like I said, to “go along to get along,” just participate in these systems of oppression for my own benefit. That’s not why I’m here.
Team BMGFly: You recently launched your book, Modern HERStory. What made you decide to take that leap of faith into publishing a book?
Blair: It’s available for pre-order. We actually were going to self-publish, but, so I’ll tell you the whole story. So, we, we being Monique and me, this is going back to 2014 when I started an organization called Equality For HER. And, we just did a re-brand there, too, so, we’re “on the glow up.” But, I was always looking on Facebook. I’m looking on Instagram, and everybody is doing these really beautiful visual campaigns, and that seemed to be a really effective way to get information across. So, I thought, “What if we do a series of images, that go beyond the Susan B. Anthony, basically the white women that we hear about during Women’s History Month, and we’d showcase women like Rigoberta Menchú, just like diverse women who exist in the world, and who are doing amazing things.”
Team BMGFly: What were the steps you took to become a content creator and activist for Equality For HER?
Blair: So, we became centered on Women of Color. The first year, I think I was a little timid. I was thinking, “I’m in the South, well, we’ll have a mix of white and people of color.” Then, I thought, “You know what, there’s enough of that. There’s enough centering white women in this world. Lets have something for us by us. So, the first two years, I did the illustrations myself. They’re hidden deep, deep, deep into the internet. They aren’t that great. As we were continuing to do this in 2016, I reached out to Monique Le, who’s the current illustrator. I said, “Hey I have this idea for a campaign, I would love to collaborate with you.” And, I met her on Twitter because she did this artist challenge where she showed her range. And, I was like, “Okay, this has range. Let’s connect.” She’s also very vocal about Asian American rights, about anti-oppression work, so she also informs the work. So, basically in 2017, we launched the series, and it’s on the heels of Women’s March, and Black Lives Matter, and all these different movements. And, everybody’s very hungry for this material.
It went really well throughout the year, and I feel like that kind of put us on the map in a lot of ways. Then, at the end of the month, we were sitting on all this content, and we’re looking at each other like, “What do we do with it?” I went to this women’s empowerment circle, and it was very kumbaya, and we all sat in a circle and they told us to put something into the world that we were going to do within the next year. People were talking about creating their own snack food line, and creating a line of purses, and okay I thought, “Well why not be super ridiculous and say I’m going to write a book within a year.” And, I felt like that as so out of bounds, but then I kind of got to thinking and I’m looking at people who are in my age group, I’m twenty-four, and who were actually writing books, and doing this work. So, we thought to self-publish. I connected with iFund Women, which is a crowdfunding organization for women, and we raised twelve thousand dollars and we were going to self-publish.
While I was pursuing this, LeVar Burton, of Reading Rainbow, actually shared our fundraising page, to his two million followers. He says, “Somebody publish this woman’s book!” I was hyperventilating. I was sitting on the couch when it happened, and I just slumped so far like, “What?” Everyone who follows him knows about Reading Rainbow. A lot of people are into publishing, and so many came out of the woodwork, “Can I see your book proposal?” And, I had no idea what a book proposal was. So, Sister @FeministaJones on Twitter, she said, “Call me, I’ll show you how to do a book proposal.” She walked me through it. I made a book proposal. We were sending it out. Somebody at Equality for HER, Laurie Rodriguez’ roommate was a book agent. So, Laurie connected me with her roommate, and Greta Moran became our book agent. It just moved lightening fast. I remember working with Greta when we finally sat down with Penguin Random House, and Ten Speed Press. They said, “Yeah, we have an offer.” And, we had so many offers, we had to pit the publishing houses against each other. I’ve been told many times that it does not happen this quickly, but I hope it’s well received. I’m in the final stage of edits. We have our pages coming out. And, it’s available for pre-order. (Click here to pre-order Modern HERstory, by Blair Imani, illustrated by Monique Le: http://bit.ly/2xAn0zI )
Team BMGFly: How do you keep aware of what you deliver, to our communities, and what do you have that separates you from others?
Blair: As a non-profit, Equality for HER captures the nuances of education and identity, and tries to convey that to the world. We tried to pivot and make it so that we’re really fulfilling a space that doesn’t exist. There are really amazing organizations doing media outlet work like Wear Your Voice Mag, Muslim Girl, Sapelo Square, and then there are folks in the space of doing anti-racism work, like MuslimARC. So, we didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. So, we’ve changed our model to having a free curriculum for the public on social justice topics; specific to gender, LGBTQ identity, and more. So, the way that our funding model works is that we work with corporations, to create stuff for, whether it’s gender diversity training or religious tolerance training. They’ll pay us to do that, and then with that funding, we’ll use it to create different curriculum. We’re going to have one coming out soon on being a white ally in the workspace. We’re working on conveying to our audience how we’re different from other organizations. One of the reasons why we re-did our brand was because if you had our older logo, which we literally just changed today, it’s hard to tell what we’re about. But, with this new logo, with the HER, the color gradient, the emphasis HER being in bold and italics. We’re about centering femmes. We’re about centering people who use the pronouns she/her no matter what their gender identity is.
Team BMGFly: How did you come up with the title ModernHERStory, and what’s the story behind it?
Blair: Yes, so we collected it. We had the people at the end of the month to be featured, folks throughout the month of March for Women’s History Month. And, as I started to learn more about different people’s stories I became very compelled to tell them. So, a lot of the people in the book— so, it’s an emphasis on people who are living. I wanted it to be a living history, because I’m so tired of our narratives having to be written by somebody else after we pass. So, I wanted it to be, you know, again, for us, by us. A lot of people who are in the book I’ve connected with through Twitter, through different organizations. And, then I’ve gotten to know a lot of people, you know like, I tweeted to Missy Elliott that she was going to be in my book and she started following me on Twitter. So, it’s been really wild. I was looking at somebody’s obituary, and it was so revisionist. You look at Martin Luther King and Malcolm X’s stories that were written after them, and it’s so revisionist. Even though, lyasah Shabazz and Dr. Bernice King are working to fix those revisions, you know, to tell the truth, it’s like an uphill battle. So, I wanted it to be very honest. I jokingly tweeted, “I don’t trust y’all. I’m writing my own eulogy. It became like a joking way to encapsulate Modern HERStory. So, I have my story in there as well.
Team BMGFly: What’s the number one thing you hope people will gain from Equality For HER?
Blair: Equality for HER, we just did our logo re-brand. This is our brand new logo that we just unrolled today. So, it’s a beautiful, gradient, so this color here is from our original but we’ve gone through three logos now because I’m trying to get it right, you know. And I feel like this logo we have now is so demonstrative of what we’re about. We’re about turning the gender binary on its head, so this pink isn’t quite baby pink, and this blue isn’t quite baby blue. And they’re melding together. We got accepted to an accelerator program, with NBC, and I even said no to that. They offered it to me, and I just didn’t feel like I was worthy of the space to do it. We were one of the youngest organizations to be working with them. Like the youngest in age, as far as the founders. I’m just trying to hold on and keep up with everything. I feel like at this point, it’s not necessarily me putting it into existence, I feel like people are demanding this. There is a need for education on social justice that is free and accessible. There is the need for the stories of diverse women, and non-binary people.
So, I’m just trying to meet the needs of our audience, meet the needs of education. It’s a really great space to be, where I don’t really have an end goal for the organization. But, we’re in this really great creative space where we’re well resourced and building a great team. I met Laurie, the Director of Research and Partnerships and President of the Board for Equality For HER. I met Laurie at Planned Parenthood. We worked together in the media department. Whenever I would have an analysis of something, Laurie would be like, “Well, what about this community? What about these people?” Always pushing me to think more inclusively. And, when I offered them a spot with Equality For HER, they were like, “Yes!” So, it’s really beautiful to find somebody who believes in something you built. There’s also Glendon Francis, who I met through Twitter, hashtag Twitter Gang. It’s a great way to build community, you know, when you have great people in the world. Glendon is in Atlanta, and has a really great repertoire of writing, creating, and, so Glendon’s now our Head of Community Outreach. We just hired the Director of Brand Growth, Tora Shae. So within a week of starting, Tora has brought us ten thousand followers, and we’re going to do Twitter Chats. I think it’s really overall, investing in people who might not have a traditional path, but have great ideas, and have great execution. We can’t pay anybody full time, because the biggest grant we’ve gotten is twenty thousand. So, everybody’s a volunteer. And, now we’re able to do stipends. But, I haven’t gotten paid yet. I want everybody to get paid before I do. It’s really amazing to find people who really believe in your mission and just want to take it further.
Team BMGFly: What is your typical day like? And, tell me about any special events you recently attended as an activist or author?
Blair: On a day, so I’m now I’m freelancing. I don’t have a job where I go into an office, Alhamdulillah. Doesn’t pay the bills but I don’t have to go into an office, so it works for me. So, I wake up. I’m working on waking up on time for Fajr (prayer before dawn) but I’m usually making up my prayers. I feel like people are so shy about that. I’m not proud of it, but it’s real, you know? So, I wake up, and make my prayers up. This is my office, this is a closet. It’s our spare room, it’s like our storage area. I wake up, do the prayers. I skip breakfast. But, when I do eat breakfast, I usually have yogurt with cereal, or yogurt with cereal and sprinkles, because I’m a child. Then, I check my emails. Every time when I wake up, I have sixty to a hundred emails waiting for me. And, they’re not spam. It’s just follow-ups, questions. I’m working on a lot of different proposals for new projects. I’m trying to get into a normal workflow. Where I have a set time where I wake up, and have a set time when I go to sleep because it just feels like college again, where I’m in this nebula, just like “work until I’m tired,” so I’m trying to make it more regimented. InshaAllah I’ll do that over Ramadan.
When I’m not at the mercy of other folks’ deadlines, I can be in more of a creative space. I’ve started to do my artwork again. I’m just trying to keep aware of what’s going on in the media, so reading my different news outlets. Reading the timeline and then figuring out what we can do with Equality for HER, or with my own brand to respond and kind of improve upon the world at large, whether it’s, “Oh, people don’t understand what this hashtag or what this movement is, how can we amplify it? How can we explain it? People are under-resourced here, well how can we fix that, how can we improve upon that. I try to make myself available to young people. Little Miss Flint, Taylor Richardson, who is doing amazing work. So sometimes, I’ll get on the phone with her, especially with Lulu, Little Miss Flint’s mom. I try to be more behind the scenes now.
Team BMGFly: How does your career impact the other aspects of your life, including your family?
Blair: Work life balance, when I had my nine-to-five, it was like impossible to try to find time to spend with each other. So now we get time to play video games together, or go to the movies, bounce ideas off each other. My partner and I are both in the process of building up businesses. They’re both focused on education and the non-profit realm. And, with my parents— my parents wish I was in town more often. They live in Los Angeles and they want me in town. So I’m trying to work my speaking engagements out so where, if I’m on the west coast, I’ll stop down for like two or three days. And, if I’m on the east coast, and it’s something that my parents can come to, I try to invite them up. But, I’m also trying to be mindful of my siblings, who don’t really want their names everywhere. Like last year it was my sister’s birthday and I asked, “Oh, can I do a thread on Twitter about you?” And, she said, “Actually please, no.” I get it. “Oh, that’s how I show love, but that might make you really uncomfortable.” So, trying to navigate the levels of invisibility with my family.
Team BMGFly: Who did you look up to while growing up? Who inspires you now?
Blair: Angela Davis. I wanted to BE Angela Davis, And, my parents are like, for a little while they were trying to play coy, like, “Oh, I don’t know why Blair is so politically involved.” And, it’s like, dude, I wanted to be Angela Davis. You knew that I wanted to Angela Davis, my whole life. And, then my one uncle Craig, he was somebody who was big into, like having the Free Angela posters he’s in Oakland. He was kind of, I think the impetus to that, educating me about Angela Davis. So, when I got out of jail, I called him and said “I’m Angela Davis now!” You know, I was also like very exhausted, but I was trying to be a little tongue-in-cheek. But, he was like, “No, you’re Blair Imani.” And so I really think it spoke to the fact that I was trying to be Angela Davis so hard, that I ended up finding myself. So, I think that’s what the power of role models is all about, giving you a heading, and you being the one to fulfill your purpose.
Now, who inspires me? Angela Davis. I was able to meet her. I met her the week that I dropped out of law school. And, literally, your girl crawled on the ground to grab the mic, and they announced, “Okay questions from the audience?” And, I was like, “This is my mic. Hello, my name’s Blair Imani,” so I was so excited. When I met Angela Davis and I asked her about law school, and the formal education process because I knew she had her doctorate. And, she basically told me exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. She was like, “You’re going to be great no matter what you do with your education. Education’s important, but, don’t let it define you.” And, I was like, “Y’all, Angela Davis just told me it’s okay to drop out of law school. It was all I needed to hear.” Everybody I featured in my book, I look up to. Even people who are younger than me, like Little Miss Flint, with her ten, almost eleven, year old self. Marley Dias, who I think is thirteen. These people who are just spending every day, despite the hate, despite the harassment, who are just making the world a better place, sometimes at their own risk, that inspires me.
Team BMGFly: Can you describe a moment where you felt defeated, and how did you overcome that?
Blair: That’s all about my journey to Islam. But, I was so burnt out when I was doing all this activism. I didn’t feel defeated, because we were definitely getting victories, changing policies on campus. But, I was tired. Like, I was sleeping through events like, I organized a “die-in” and I slept through it because I was just so burnt out. My mom was like, “Don’t get burnt out,” and I was like, what does that mean. It was like a cognitive dissonance for me. And, when it happened, I was like, “Oh, where you feel like your dying, but you’re alive. That.” And, I just needed a space to center myself, and so, I started going to a mosque with my friend. It felt like those five times throughout the day, to really look at something higher than yourself, and, you’re doing that with millions of people around the world, given that sense of community, and centering. That became really what I think helped me feel, not defeated because I was fulfilled. I was doing what I loved doing, but I didn’t have any grounding. I didn’t have like a foundation to stand on.
Team BMGFly:. Can you describe a moment where you felt like you defied odds or broke barriers?
Blair: I don’t know. I’m so in denial about the work I’m doing, which I’m working on, with my therapist. I don’t know, I think that when I came out on Fox News, it was definitely an unexpected moment for me, and for a lot of people. But the reason why I think it was a time where I defied the odds was, because I went to the University of Omaha, Nebraska, to speak at an event, and there was a woman there, and I was kind of riffing about this crazy thing I did. You know, I’m a wild, wacky girl. And then, there was a moment where I asked, “Did anyone have a time where representation mattered to them?” And she raised her hand and said, “When I saw you on Fox News and you came out, I was on vacation with my very homophobic family. And, I just felt seen. I was like… When you’re doing something crazy in New York, you don’t think it’s going to affect somebody in Omaha, Nebraska. How could I have imagined that? So, that was a really sobering moment for me. Where I was like, “Okay. What you’re doing… It feels like I’m flailing, you know, constantly. But, I’m doing something right, and it impacts people positively.
Team BMGFly: What would you cite as the foundation of your success?
Blair: My parents. My parents raised me to be very vocal and outspoken, despite that period of time where they were like, “I don’t know how she’s so political.” I feel like they raised me very intentionally, to speak out with righteous indignation against oppression and hate, since I was a child. So without that, I don’t think I would be doing what I’m doing. They gave me the confidence. They gave me the sense of self. And, that reinforcement throughout time, to be who I am.
Team BMGFly: #BlackMuslimGirlFly is an empowerment brand created to uplift and remind Black girls that they are FLY in many ways. What advice would you give all the Black Muslim girls out there, worldwide, to cultivate their own individual #BlackMuslimGirlFly?
Blair: I think it’s very important to pay homage to your role models and the people who come before you. I think as a community, especially with Blackness, and within Islam, we’re very good about paying homage to people who come before us, but, I think that the younger generation, as most of the folks who came before us, don’t be afraid to add to the conversation, or to put your twist on it. To ask questions. And, not necessarily like be provocative, you know people say provocative in a sexual manner, but be provocative and provoke thought, provoke conversation. provoke ideas. Because your voice needs to be a part of the conversation. We’re all very unique, and we all approach problem solving in unique ways. Whether it’s a problem to solve, or an idea for a program at your mosque. Or a post of inspiration. Or an interpretation of Qur’an. Just speak it, and don’t be afraid, because there’s no such thing as a stupid question. And, I really believe that we have all this flyness, why would we keep it to ourselves? “Keep operating in your purpose, and serving God, and you’re on the right path. You had a purpose, before anybody had an opinion.” ~Brittany Packnett
Team BMGFly: What’s something you haven’t done yet, but would like to do next?
Blair: I want to design a line of clothes. It would be a mix. I’m the type of person to wear fashion sneakers with a suit. I recently I had this outfit on at the at the GLAAD Awards Luncheon, I wore a skirt as a hijab, and it really worked. I’d just be thinking unconventionally. The shape that the skirt provided to the hijab was so flowy and ruffly. It felt really unique. I think that I’d play a lot with the construction of the fabric. I know how to do pattern making. It would just be time. But that is something that feels so separate from what I’m doing now. But, it’s definitely on the bucket list.
Thanks again for sharing your story with us and the rest of the world. I believe it’s very important for us, Black Muslim Girls and Women, to stand up and speak up and let the world know we are here and we’re making things happen. For far too long, we’ve been made to be invisible.