Freak by Radhiyah Ayobami

harmony. a little girl, oak brown with reddish tints in her cheeks. hips like a woman and finger-length ponytail braids sticking out by her ears. comes to school in a black coat with a gold cat on the back and knee-high fur boots. eats at least two trays at lunch. fights with girls and loves boys. writes love letters- to karim. to rashawn. to richard. they tear her letters up, throw them away. run from her on the playground. won’t sit next to her at lunch. the boys like julia, from puerto rico, who takes out her ponytail on warm afternoons and lets her hair fly black and loose on the playground. they like alissa, butter yellow, lean and mean as a wolf, who pushes other girls and makes them cry. they carry these girls schoolbags, save them an extra apple or mozzarella stick from lunch. nobody saves anything for harmony. a mexican boy she writes letters to says they don’t have girls like her in his country.


harmony likes to talk about humping. she makes up songs that rhyme with penis. she gets pulled out of the bathroom with a boy. she wears purple silk panties to school and the girls gather in a knot and shake their heads. the boys laugh and say a new word about her. freak. once she is labeled anyone can ask her to do anything, and they do. harmony has been asked to hump the lunchroom wall in front of everyone, which she did. she has had her letters read out loud and ripped in front of her face by the boy she wrote them to. she has given boys paper, pencil, markers, and been called ugly by the person who was using them. she has been told it is better to be dead than liked by her. 


harmony at seven years old being taught how to become public property. bend over. stand here. touch this. you oughta be glad somebody. not my baby. harmony being taught to be the girl everyone whispers about. i heard she. three men at once. don’t know who none of the daddies is. harmony who can sing in a clear bell voice and likes cats and pretzel sticks, being taught to be a freak. ho. baby mama. a woman anything can be said to. a woman who men will lay with and never marry. everybody know how she do.


harmony being prepared for a lifetime of giving. her legs, her heart, her wallet, the doors of her house, always open. will anyone ever carry her bags or will she always be too much of a burden? will any boy ever watch her on the playground, her braids and beads popping in the breeze, and feel his heart flutter, just a little?


Contributor Notes

I wrote 'freak' after spending some time with Harmony, a little girl in my class who was acting out sexually and labeled by her classmates.  At that point, I had been working with children for years and had seen and heard a lot.  When Harmony sat on the playground bench with me one day, crossing her legs in her knee high black boots and discussing boys and sex, it made me think about silences.  It made me think about the many relationships my girlfriends had gone through as young women, and the names people had called them. I was never able to fully understand that behavior until I met Harmony.  Way back before my friends had all the babies and the boyfriends and the drama, they were little girls like Harmony.  She is their beginning.


Currently I'm working on a series of prose pieces about the lives of people that I have met or observed on the journey my life has become over the past few years. For awhile I was discouraged as an artist because I didn't have the means or opportunity to travel as widely as I wanted, or to take a lot of the workshops that interested me. So my travel grant became the metrocard that took me across the boroughs of NYC on citywide buses and trains.  And my workshop became listening to the stories of men and women in public offices, schools, shelters, and on the street. The strength and character of people who survive - or even the stories of those who don't survive - is what gives me the inspiration to create my work. Lately, I'm really being drawn to the stories of the people around me, and starting to see that the voice of a woman in Brazil or Ghana or India might not be so different from the voice of a woman in Flatbush or East New York, Brooklyn. Like the elders say, "Sometimes you got to look in your own backyard."