The Work Diary of Blair Imani, ‘Herstory’ Historian

Her “Smarter in Seconds” Instagram videos feature bite-size lessons — and a kaleidoscopic array of hijabs.

Blair ImaniCredit…Maggie Shannon for The New York Times

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By Leigh-Ann Jackson

Blair Imani thinks and speaks at a mile a minute. That speed comes in handy when the historian and social activist is creating her “Smarter in Seconds” Instagram videos — a series of bite-size tutorials that nimbly address such subjects as consent, cultural appropriation and gender expression for her audience of more than 300,000 followers, known as Smarties.

A hallmark of Ms. Imani’s brand is combining progressive lessons with vibrant visuals and a perky, quirky delivery. In each post, she models a kaleidoscopic array of hijabs, with chromatically curated attire, makeup and manicures. “I grew up in the ’90s, so edutainment was my bread and butter,” Ms. Imani, 27, said. History, she added, “doesn’t have to be boring. It’s actually very exciting, if you approach it the right way.”

Ms. Imani is the author of “Making Our Way Home: The Great Migration and the Black American Dream,” as well as “Modern Herstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History,” an illustrated collection of short profiles, ranging from icons of the civil rights movement to lesser-known pathbreakers of today.

We connected in late October, as she prepared for a virtual event with Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “How to Be an Antiracist.” The discussion covered topics like voting obstacles that Black and brown citizens experience, white domestic terrorism veiled as patriotism and the importance of transcending personal feelings of discomfort in order to learn about and reflect on structural racism.

Interviews are conducted by email, text and phone, then condensed and edited.


5:45 a.m. Wake up for wudu (shower and ritual cleansing) for the Fajr prayer and pray toward Mecca. I wake up on time for this almost every morning and do my best to stay off social media because that’s my “talking to Allah” time. Then I head back to bed.

8 a.m. Wake up again to feed myself and my dogs, Rita and Django, then let them out to bark at the world.

9 a.m. Triple-check the audio and caption sync on three new “Smarter in Seconds” videos before posting them on Instagram, to celebrate Intersex Awareness Day.

Noon: After lunch, I log onto a Google Meet session with Ren Fernández-Kim and Lady Izdihar. We call ourselves the Honest Scholars (formerly the Honest Historians) on Instagram. We review the analytics and takeaways from the content we posted Sunday night, which explored the ways that different cultures view death. Reading over the comments, there were a lot of wholesome, smarty moments and also some smart-aleck moments. Then we discuss ideas for our next post, which will be about revolution and the concept of “power to the people.”

1 p.m. Video chat with my fiancé, Akeem, who’s studying in London until December.

2 p.m. Meet up with Ren, my younger sister and another friend. We all got Covid-tested so we could safely do a group photo shoot for Halloween, which is also my 27th birthday. I’m dressing up as Maleficent this year, and they’re the Fairies.

6 p.m. Dinner with family. I live in Pasadena, in the house behind my parents, and my mother cooks every night. I help with the dishes after.

7 p.m. Catch up on the day’s prayers. Ideally, Muslims are supposed to pray on time throughout the day, and you would think that I would have this nailed down, especially since I am working from home. But I’m not perfect and I don’t enjoy pretending to be. So, I’ll be honest: I miss every single other prayer time and make up for that at Isha, the evening prayers.

9 p.m. Wind down, do my skin care routine and follow up on direct messages from Instagram. I am an unusual person in that I read every single direct message that I receive and respond to as many as possible. Human interactions are few and far between because of the pandemic, so I try to cherish conversation when and where I can.

10 p.m. I tried to go to bed early, but after receiving quite a few messages of distress and confusion from my Smarties about the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, I got out of bed, threw on a hijab, turned my ring light on and did my best to give an encouraging speech.


10 a.m. New Instagram post: a photo of me in a Rosie the Riveter look and a message about voting. It was initially going to be a very cut-and-dried history lesson about Black women’s role in the nation’s labor force, but I wanted to sprinkle in a bit of encouragement, given the political climate.

11 a.m. I prepare for today’s conversation with Ibram X. Kendi by completing some of the activities in his new journal, “Be Antiracist.” I also watch some of his interviews in rapid succession to make sure I don’t do my pet peeve, which is asking the same five questions interviewers always ask.

2 p.m. Must get glam for the talk. I usually like a monochrome look, so my eye shadow will match my hijab. I’m working with a downsized wardrobe right now, though, since I’m renovating my closet. About 15 minutes before the talk, I post a #vibecheck selfie on Instagram. I make sure my phone and Wi-Fi hot spot are charged, Dr. Kendi’s books are close by, and my family knows to keep interruptions to a minimum. (My mom is known to crash a live event.)

3 p.m. The video conversation with Dr. Kendi. It’s hosted by Loyalty Bookstore, a shop in Washington.

5 p.m. I have a last-minute turnaround for a brand partnership post, so I asked the photographer Kaelan Barowsky if he could swing by to capture the photos. This particular shoot involved me climbing into a tree in lavender suede platform shoes. I had already taken off my makeup, but I think the natural face made for a fairly down-to-Earth look. The post was for a reforestation funding campaign, so it all balanced out nicely.

6 p.m. For tonight’s family dinner, we had halal lasagna. I get excited when my mom prepares meals that are halal because it shows that she cares about my religion even though it’s different from her own beliefs.

9 p.m. Catch up on YouTube. I enjoy watching listicle videos and I usually listen to videos by Simon Whistler and Mike Oh while I get ready for bed.


1 p.m. After my usual morning routine and lunch, I attend a board meeting for the Tegan and Sara Foundation, a L.G.B.T.Q.+ advocacy group. We focus on our 2021 efforts and do a recap of the impact of the rapid-response grants we provided to organizations coping with the impacts of Covid. I also update the board on a protest art presentation I gave to one of our grant beneficiaries, Camp Brave Trails.

5 p.m. I go over business updates with Ren, then get to work building out a website for the Tyrone “Baldy” Davis Foundation. In my spare time, I volunteer my graphic design and brand marketing skills to help community organizations.

6 p.m. I had to skip our sit-down family dinner because of all the work I needed to do before going to bed. It was actually a surprisingly busy Wednesday. I didn’t even get a chance to post on my IG stories like I regularly would.

9 p.m. I noticed that a video from a feminist debate with Vice that I participated in last year was going viral again. It does that every few months because of a debate participant saying she voted for Donald Trump as a joke after campaigning for Bernie Sanders. My Smarties have such interest in the clip that I decide to get in touch with some of the debate participants — Nala Simone Toussaint, Deja Foxx and Kate Robards — to do a reunion video over Zoom.

More work. By the time I realize the hour, it’s about 4 a.m., so I just decide to power through for an all-nighter of updating accounts for the Honest Scholars.


5:45 a.m. I pray indoors because it’s pretty chilly this morning.

8 a.m. Feed and let the dogs out, but not for too long because of the ash and smoke in the air from wildfires in the L.A. area. Then I sleep for the next few hours, wake back up at 11 a.m., and eat lunch.

2 p.m. During today’s meeting of the Honest Scholars, we decide our logo should be a crest that represents the three of us and our work as historians and anthropologists.

4 p.m. I post a question box on Instagram so my Smarties can add their input to the conversation I’m about to have with the speakers from the viral feminism debate.

6 p.m. The Zoom meeting starts and we discuss the infamous “I voted as a joke” line from the 2019 video. We also cover the Barrett confirmation, the importance of voting and the erasure of trans women from conversations about feminism.

7 p.m. Dinner with the family.

8 p.m. Catch up on the day’s prayers.

9 p.m. I finish up some more work, then end up passing out way earlier than usual.


11 a.m. I receive a bona fide offer from Ten Speed Press for my next book, which will be based on my “Smarter in Seconds” series and available in fall 2021.

Noon Lunch while tuning into the virtual dissertation defense by Shay-Akil McLean, a queer trans evolutionary geneticist. The session, titled “Du Bois Meets Darwin,” brilliantly breaks down the importance of considering race and racism in discussions of science, genetics and biology.

4 p.m. I usually talk to Akeem at this time, but I wasn’t able to get in touch with him. I decide I’ll try again around 11 p.m., which is when he wakes up in London.

5 p.m. Early dinner with the family so we can pick up my aunt from LAX on time.

7 p.m. Surprise! Unbeknown to me, Akeem traveled from London to LAX to surprise me for my birthday. He and I will be quarantining away from the rest of the family until he can get a negative Covid test.

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