By: Megan Beauchamp
The first time I met Naomi was in a Women’s studies course, last year. Black hat perched over dreads, and squelched inside a tiny desk she spoke to us about intersectionality and her experiences growing up Black in white spaces.
After a lively discussion in which we shared some of our experiences with race, Naomi read us one of her poems, Spend this Wisely. The best part of the piece is when she likens a Black penis to a Snicker’s bar. No, really.
If you take a look at Naomi’s webpage, three words are written under her name: Poet. Writer. Feminist. Her work is varied, but the common thread between them all is a focus on Black women and girls; their lives, their pleasure, and their agency.
In a short, but insightful conversation, I caught up with Naomi to talk about the state of the Black female body in our culture today, and how constant conversation can help drive the narrative in a positive light.
Megan Beauchamp: This might be a weird first question, but is your last name really Extra? Because if it is, that’s really cool.
Naomi Extra: It’s funny, I get that question relatively often. It is actually Extra. I don’t know if this is true but my father tells this story — he’s from Haiti, and my mother is African American. Originally our last name was French, it was Bastien. And some relative in our family got into a duel with a Frenchman that involved a horse and a sword or something. My dad tells the story that then we became Extra. I don’t quite know actually how it became my last name, but it is.
Last year, you talked a lot about your experiences growing up in Upstate New York. Is where you grew up something that shows up in your work a lot?
I think that is a big part of it definitely. I mean, the manuscript that I’m near finishing now, is about girlhood and growing up in this predominantly poor working-class/rural, suburban environment. I think space is extremely important, but oddly I don’t write about actual places often. People who have read my manuscript have said there’s not a lot about place, but there’s a lot about my relationships with people in those places and how they shaped how I saw myself as a girl.
A lot of your writings and poetry focus on the Black female body. Was there ever a moment or spark that made you want to write about this specifically?
My manuscript at large is about Black girlhood and sexual discovery. In my scholarly work, I look at Black feminism, and sex-positivity — those are my interests. But I also think there’s this way in which the everyday experience of being in your body as a girl — especially as a Black girl — is just completely absent and very taboo. In this moment, we’re seeing a lot more of it, but it’s still a subject that’s every day and so relatable that we just don’t talk about.
I write a lot about the body because I think the body is a major source of knowledge. It’s a source of knowledge that I think we’re taught not to listen to, or pay attention to. I think as girls we can sometimes get in trouble and have dangerous experiences because of that lack of sexual knowledge. We get this information from schools, our parents, and all of these different places, so we’re too often not thinking about the relationships between pleasure and danger.
I write about trauma in my poetry, and not understanding what danger looks like. Not understanding how to assert myself as a sexual being and tell people: this is my body, this is my space, and it’s not for you. And also, hey, I can enjoy this too.
“We are still hyper-sexed, but at the same time, not really allowed to own our sexuality.”
It’s interesting that you say that. Do you think that girls — maybe Black girls especially are pushed into womanhood sooner than they’re ready for?
I don’t think Black girls actually ever really get to be girls. I don’t think we’re granted that. There’s all of this writing and research that surfaced in the past decade or so about Black girls and punishment in schools, so we know that Black girls are much more likely to receive more severe punishment for certain infractions.
I also think that Black girls are just extremely. . . vulnerable. We are still hyper-sexed, but at the same time, not really allowed to own our sexuality. I think it’s a very challenging subject because there is a lot of discomfort around talking about sexuality when it’s not about protection. We still need to have that conversation, because I don’t think Black girls are protected enough, but that’s where the conversation often stops. Research shows that being Black, White, or whatever – the more education and the more information that young people have, the less likely they are to engage in risky behavior.
I think that is very true to my life, and a lot of my friends.
Because you’re in bodies right? People have sexual feelings from a very young age and that’s not something we’re willing to think about as a culture. If you don’t know what those feelings are, and you don’t understand the gendered relationships toward sex that we have in our culture – how Black girls are thought about racially, then you are up against this really complicated and potentially dangerous, stressful, and harmful situation as a young girl.
Is that something that you struggled with growing up?
Oh absolutely. One of my poems – well all of my poems are pretty much about that. This one poem I wrote is about having this body and seeing that it’s getting this certain attention.
I think girls are always in that space of how to receive a compliment. But also learning what to do with sexual or physical attention — how to navigate both wanted an unwanted desire.
Right. I mean, even reading your essay on Love Jones,— how you write about this couple that represents a symbol of Black sex-positivity… How can we push the change from feeling uncomfortable in our bodies, to being positive about them?
My primary audience as a writer who writes about Black girlhood and sexual discovery, are black young women and girls. Of course, there is lots of great positive reception, but I always – well often enough, I get people inviting me and then uninviting me to do things. The challenge there is that, people don’t think that kids should be thinking, discussing, or have any exposure to anything about sex — be it sex education, anything. It also has to happen in a very particular way. Teachers at one high school were uncomfortable because I had the word ‘boob’ in my poem.
I think that the amplification of Black girl’s voices is really, really important. I think the demands that Black girls make of their teachers, of their families, and their intimate spaces are really important. At a more systemic level, I think we need Sex Ed. I think it needs to come back in a way that is honest and real and speaks to kids, and young adults’ real lives. Specifically, if you’re a person of color, race, racism, sex, and sexism need to be embedded in those conversations because they shape how we think about ourselves as sexual beings.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.