Giving Voice to Unsung Black Feminist Writers


Professor Naomi Extra has had a lifelong love affair with books and reading, although she rarely saw herself in the characters populating the novels and stories of her youth.

“As a Black girl growing up in the 1990s, the books I read by Black women were few and far between,” noted Professor Extra, one of Chapin’s three 2020-2021 Scholars-in-Residence. (The other Scholars are Dr. Westenley Alcenat and Professor Kahdeidra Monét Martin ’99, whose community talks are on March 4 and April 29, respectively.)

This experience would ultimately inform the accomplished scholar’s personal and professional trajectories, causing Professor Extra to think deeply about fundamental questions like, Who decides what works of literature are worthy of being read and taught?

On February 9, the Chapin community spent a virtual evening with Professor Extra, a writer, poet, artist, and doctoral candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark who specializes in Black feminist thought and gender and sexuality.

The hour-long Zoom webinar explored the relationship between power, literary production and canon-making by recognizing a trio of Black feminist writers whose groundbreaking and provocative work falls outside the boundaries of the Western literary canon.

Following Head of School Suzanne Fogarty’s warm welcome, Class 12 student Lauren Berthoumieux gave a thoughtful introduction that set the stage for Professor Extra’s illuminating presentation.

“When learning about Black culture and history, students like myself should feel uplifted and empowered by hearing about the contributions our ancestors made to society,” said Lauren. “With the help of these three amazing partners, including Professor Extra herself, all students can learn about the history and culture of the Black experience.”

Sharing what she described as a “very embarrassing” image of her teenage self in front of an overflowing bookshelf, Professor Extra exclaimed, “I love holding books, the smell of books, the feel of books.” In time, however, she learned that all books, including many within the Black feminist literary tradition, were not treated equally.

“It wasn’t until I became a writer that I began to understand the complex constellation of individuals and institutions that aid in producing what many of us have come to understand as ‘good literature,’” she said, adding that the male-dominated, majority-white literary world left little room for outsiders.

While acknowledging the invaluable contributions of established Black authors like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, Professor Extra was determined to validate and celebrate the work of non-canonical writers. Thus, she embarked on an expansive research project that centered around largely unknown Black feminist authors from the 1970s and ’80s, a fertile time period for these trailblazing individuals.

During the absorbing talk, the Chapin community was introduced to three of these writers and their transformative volumes: Red Jordan Arobateau, author of “The Bars Across Heaven” (1975); Ann Allen Shockley, who wrote “Loving Her” (1974); and S. Diane Bogus, best known for “Woman In the Moon” (1977).

As photos of their book covers appeared on the screen, Professor Extra noted that each succeeded in disrupting the status quo by chronicling the lives of “women in the margins” who were often unseen by mainstream society. The fact that these particular works had been rejected by conventional publishing houses and lacked polish and nuance only added to their broad appeal, the speaker told the audience.

“I’m interested in expansiveness and inclusion,” said Professor Extra, who holds a master’s degree in Afro American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and who, early in her career, taught at The James Baldwin School, a public transfer high school in Manhattan.

Before the evening’s talk concluded, Lauren Berthoumieux rejoined the webinar to pose to Professor Extra a selection of audience questions, which touched on a range of topics from the need for diverse critics and independent presses to the importance of newer Black voices like writer and cartoonist Ebony Flowers and the young poet Amanda Gorman.

In response to a query about her experience at Chapin thus far, Professor Extra remarked, “Working at a school like Chapin is a dream job for me. I’m really excited about the work that I have done and will continue to do with students. The young people that I work with are constantly influencing me creatively and intellectually.”

Professor Extra welcomes inquiries through her website at www.naomiextra.com.
To watch a video of her Chapin presentation, visit https://vimeo.com/511150059
Learn more about Chapin’s Scholars-in-Residence program here: https://www.chapin.edu/about/community-life-and-diversity