Around 500 Babies: Myrah Keating Smith

Footsteps thumped down the path, and she heard them before the child’s shout, “Miss Myrah!” By the time the sharp bang on the door rattled the shells hanging in the window, she was already up and reaching for her bag. Ignoring Andro’s sleepy complaint, “Who is it, mama?” she fumbled for clothing. “Hush, now. It’s just Elijah…it’s Purdy’s time.” Her bones ached a little, but when didn’t they, when the island breeze shifted in October? Purdy was young and strong, and the baby had been kicking for months. It would be fine. Dress pulled over her head, bag in hand, she set off after Elijah on the path. The moonlight was dim, but they’d traveled this so many times, they both knew every twist and every rock…

Ma’ho Bay on St. John’s, recent resorts wiped out by Hurricane Irma. Photo by kajmeister.

When I was in St. John’s on vacation two weeks ago, our tour bus rounded a steep corner, and the guide barked out in his island lilt, “This is our beloved MKS, the Myrah Keating Smith Hospital. Myrah was a midwife on the island who delivered over 500 babies…”

…and I thought to myself, there’s probably a lot more to that story.

It’s a week after International Women’s Day, but it’s still Women’s History month! Even if all I have is a little Wikipedia entry, I can read between the silences. What follows is mostly truth, with a little fictional speculation on my part to bring it to life. Clearly a remarkable woman!

African Names, Danish Legacy

Myrah Keating Smith was born in 1908 and raised on Lovango Cay, a small spit of land next to St. John’s island, all at the time part of the Danish West Indies. What were the Danes doing there? A little side trip is necessary as explanation. By the time the Mayflower was floundering into Boston and the Spanish were spreading over Florida, the Danes were itching to get in the action over in the New World. Everyone was grabbing up Caribbean islands — French, British, Spanish — and the Danes wanted in on the lucrative sugar crop. They knew how to sail, too, and they “discovered” that St. Thomas and St. John were “uninhabited” (other than the people who already lived there), so the Danes claimed them in 1672. Originally, the settlement they created was two Danish men yanked out of a Copenhagen prison.

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I’m Sorry, Genghis Khan*

Dear Mongol Empire,
I’m sorry that I suggested you caused the Black Death. I’m sorry that I thought your tribe was a bunch of bloodthirsty barbarians who raged across Asia, killing everything that moved, just for fun. I don’t know where I got that idea.

I’m sorry that I mentioned that you used biological warfare to bring the Black Death to Europe, when it was more likely ships that brought infected animals and people from those voyages in search of Chinese silk and porcelains. And I sort of glossed over the millions of deaths of Mongolians and others in the Far East. I’m sorry that I thought this sort of caused the Renaissance rather than giving credit to the Khan’s enhancement of trade along the Silk Road which brought printing and gunpowder from the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty in Northern China to the West.

I’ll admit, I was a little confused about why the Mongols could end up being called hordes, Tartars, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Buddhists, Muslims, and worshipers of a Sky God (Tenggeri). I think I’ve finally figured all that out. “Hordes” comes from a Turkish word ordu which means group, so it’s not throwing shade to say Mongol hordes. Anyway, I’m sorry I thought you all looked like Shan Yu in “Mulan.” I don’t know where that came from. (Oh, maybe “Mulan”?)

Mea culpa. Wait… that’s Latin. How about намайг уучлаарай?

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The Greatest Rematch You Didn’t See

Claressa Shields & Savannah Marshall elevate women’s boxing. Photo by Tom Jenkins/The Observer.

Imagine you’re eleven years old and live in one of the worst neighborhoods in the country. Gun violence surrounds you. Father in prison, mother with substance abuse problems, kids at school throw your homework in the trash. Even the tap water is poisoned. You learn to stick up for yourself; you learn to fight back. Then, you find out you can fight in a gym–hallelujah! Except that you’re a girl.

Fast forward six years, and the gym has let you, Claressa Shields from Flint, Michigan, hang around and learn some things. No longer a punk little kid, you’ve been fighting with the gloves on, boxing for six years. In some sports, you’d be called a prodigy, but this sport isn’t for girls, isn’t for ladies, so you get no respect.

Shields as an adolescent lived with her trainer, Jason Crutchfield, and credits him and her grandmother for teaching her not to accept restrictions. Photo from Zackary Canepari.

You have won your first 25 matches. The one place you can gain respect–the biggest international tournament on earth–is finally allowing women in to box. The 2012 Olympics is coming, and you can qualify, if you just defeat one more person. She’s older; she’s taller; she’s also never lost. She’s English. Her name is Savannah Marshall. And she beats you.

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