Author Blair Imani is in town tonight to talk Black history and intersectionality.
Imani is a black, queer, Muslim artist. A month before her first book, Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History, was published, Imani received an email from her publisher asking for new book ideas.
“I was like, ‘Already?’ It’s a blessing, but as a new author, I was just trying to get through this book tour. I eventually learned to be excited about it because it’s honestly a dream come true that, before your first book even comes out, your publisher is like, ‘We would like more from you,’” Imani says.
When writing her latest book, Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and the Black American Dream, Imani knew she wanted to discuss colourism and women’s roles in different social movements. She takes an intersectional approach to recounting the history of The Great Migration: “I wanted to look at movements that are better understood and look at the queer aspect, look at disability rights, look at Indigenous rights and really move that needle forward, because I feel like so long as you portray LGBTQ identity, women’s liberation, disabled self-agency and etcetera as new phenomenon and not part of the human experience, then people can be easily dismissed.”
Her publisher was looking to capture the historical moment of Black History Month’s 50th anniversary, and Imani had lots in mind.
“I happened to have had the idea of writing about the Great Migration—like going back to college—because it’s a period that is so transformational for the Black community and America at large. But the fact that it is so under-discussed really speaks to the erasure of Black identity in the United States’ story.”
The author says she is disappointed that schools in the United States usually don’t teach children about the impacts of oppression, and instead “spend a whole class period talking about a conversation that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson might have had. And that’s prioritized over like, ‘Okay! Let’s have an actual discussion about the marginalized people who were affected by slavery.’”
Imani says she became an author through a mix of opportunity and preparation. Before she began to write her first book, she attended a women’s retreat. From the group of mentors she met there, she started to understand how to successfully publish a book. She used crowdfunding to start the process: “I was under the impression that you could publish an illustrated full-colour book for $12,000, which is not the case at all. If I tell that story in author circles, everyone will erupt into laughter because they’re like, ‘Oh, you poor, naive bébé.’”
Imani was worried that her project would become a “rip-off Kickstarter nightmare.” And so, as any Internet-savvy Gen-Z’er would, she turned to Twitter.
“Basically, I was like, ‘Hey Twitter! My book is almost finished, but I don’t have a publisher. Twitter, do your thing. And LeVar Burton, who is like the king of publishing, saw it, and he was like, ‘Yeah, somebody publish this woman’s book!’”
“Basically, the landscape of feminist discourse is very informed by people who have the power to shape it and not necessarily everyone who benefits from it… and I found that, as I was entering the publishing space, I saw how those systems get upheld.”
Overnight, Imani received several inquiries from publishers. Within a matter of hours, she had to learn how to write a book proposal and secure herself a literary agent. Though she appreciated the attention to her book, Imani says a lot of people “were interested in this viral moment but weren’t necessarily interested in really honouring gender-diverse people or people of colour by any stretch of the imagination, and so there was a lot of whitewashing. Like, ‘Why do you consider Missy Elliott to be a feminist icon?’ And it’s like, ‘Ugh… ‘Cause she is…’”
“Basically, the landscape of feminist discourse is very informed by people who have the power to shape it and not necessarily everyone who benefits from it,” says Imani. “And I found that, as I was entering the publishing space, I saw how those systems get upheld.”
Imani grew up in Pasadena, California, which she describes as just close enough to Los Angeles to admire its charm without constantly being in an “overexposed” environment, for which she says she is thankful.
“Actually, I liked speaking a lot more than I liked writing, growing up,” says Imani. “I live in the back house of my childhood home, so I have some autonomy from my parents. I was just getting some stuff that I store there, and one of those things is this 2005 oral language award that I got in elementary school.”
Imani now does public speaking for a living. When it comes to identity politics, there are still so many things left to talk about: “Being veiled, being Muslim, being queer, it’s kind of a constant reaffirmation of self in a space that tries to claim I shouldn’t exist or that I’m too complex.”
Imani converted to Islam as a young adult and says the friends who helped her along the way didn’t want to tell her how to live her faith. She says it was a process of self-discovery that she enjoyed because she could “own” the process.
“We see throughout different classical materials,” Imani says, referring to religious scripture and philosophical treatises, that “[hateful] interpretations are used to oppress other people for the benefit of whatever political position is in power—not necessarily because it’s inherent to the text. People can use the same text to be liberated, and other people use it to oppress. It’s kind of, of the human condition.”
Blair Imani’s 2020 book tour for Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and the Black American Dream makes a stop at the Algonquin Commons Theatre tonight, Tuesday, February 4, 2020. Doors open at 7:30pm, and general admission is $15. Algonquin College students receive $5 off upon presenting a valid student ID at the Algonquin Commons Theatre Box Office.