For a long time she had dreadlocks. Then came a full-blown Afro and later a trimmed-down version. There was a period of pigtails, too.
And now this.
“A lot of people like it, but some people go, ‘What did you do to your hair?’ ” Malaya Booth said with a laugh as she turned her head to give you the full effect of her blue mohawk.
She said her dad, John, had manned the shears that molded the tufted runway down the middle of her head. Maria, her mom, then bleached it for her and dyed it blue.
“I have a favorite superhero, Storm, and for a time period she had a mohawk. I was kind of inspired by that,” 13-year-old Malaya said of the Marvel Comics crusader. “And I don’t really care what everybody else thinks. I like being kinda different from the rest of the people around me.”
But the McKinney Middle School eighth-grade track star didn’t need a haircut for that.
She is like no other young teen in the Miami Valley.
Her great, great grandfather was Addison White, the fabled runaway slave who rallied the town of Mechanicsburg around him and has since been immortalized in a stage play, Freedom Bound, and in an Ohio Historical Marker that now stands downtown in his adopted Champaign County village.
Malaya’s maternal grandparents were Filipino doctors who first tended to the coal camps in West Virginia and that prompts Maria to jokingly refer to herself as an “Asian Appalachian Hillbilly.”
Her paternal grandfather was William Booth, a one-time Wilberforce University athlete who ended up in West Dayton and was known as “Little Boo Boo — The Little Man with the Big Voice.”
A jazz musician whose vocals were matched by his trombone and drum play, Boo Boo did sets with celebrated jazz musician Johnny Lytle of Springfield
Malaya’s dad, John, is a musician, too, and both of her parents are veterans of the Dayton poetry slam scene. And the entire family, including Malaya’s 11-year-old brother Malik, was part of the popular Booth Family Drummers that, until a recent hiatus, had played at functions all around here and in the Philippines.
“If you just look at what they’ve had her engaged in at a very young age, you see she’s getting a full history course within her own family,” said John Gudgel, the Yellow Springs High School track coach who retired a few years ago as the high school’s principal, became a grade school guidance counselor and still remains one of the village’s all-time star athletes.
Yet not to throw shade on the family tree, but Malaya is making her own history.
Her art work — from sketches, caricatures and cartoons to pieces made of trash — has caught people’s attention since she was in kindergarten. A couple of years ago, she sold enough of it at street fairs and the farmers’ market in town to buy her first set of track spikes.
Last weekend, competing for the Southwest Ohio Track Club at the USATF Region 5 Junior Olympic Championship at Cedarville University, she qualified in the long jump and the 100-meter dash for the USATF Hershey National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships in Lawrence, Kansas, from July 24-30.
Peter Dierauer, who coaches Malaya along with his wife Isabelle, said he was not surprised by her efforts last weekend:
“She is a very, very dedicated track athlete. She’s very serious. She has never yet competed at the national level, but she has a lot of potential. She’ll qualify again in the years to come.”
Away from the track she’s already made a name for herself as a writer in the state’s “Power of the Pen” competition. She’s also shown a strong social consciousness.
She marched through Yellow Springs last January to show solidarity with the women’s march on Washington D.C. And some 13 months before that she took part in the Black Lives Matter march in Beavercreek to highlight the shooting death of John Crawford at the Walmart there.
Back in Yellow Springs she is the tour guide for the African-American history walks through the village that are part of The 365 Project founded by Gudgel as a way of highlighting the contributions of blacks there every day of the year.
So while some might initially focus on Malaya’s mohawk, Gudgel looks at her and sees unshorn promise:
“She stands out for all the right reasons. She stands out for what the Yellow Springs community encourages its young people to do — be fearless leaders, fearless thinkers and dare to challenge the status quo.”
Does history tours
The genesis of The 365 Project, Gudgel said, came as he witnessed “the demographics of Yellow Springs beginning to change.
“There are fewer African-Americans and with me being a history teacher and getting up in age as are my contemporaries, I figured we need to preserve the legacy and the importance of what blacks have contributed to the community. Otherwise, like a lot of history, it will be lost.
“People who made significant impacts on integration or addressed racial issues in Yellow Springs, they’re either older now or they have passed on.“
With the help of others, he launched The 365 Project. One off-shoot of that is the Young People of Color program for students. There are also the history tours that were put together by historian and Antioch professor Kevin McGruder.
“Initially we looked at getting older high school kids to do the tours, but we struggled in that regard,” Gudgel said. “That’s when we thought, ‘Hey, why not try some younger kids? We could groom them and have them around for four or five years.’
“And immediately I thought of Malaya Booth. I’ve been around her as a guidance counselor at the elementary school and around her with the track program, too. I remembered her as the type of young lady who is a self-assured person. Someone with a lot of confidence. Not cockiness, just confidence.
“She’s a very unique young lady who has a lot of worldly views and global knowledge that you don’t see in most kids that young.”
Malaya conducted tours last year and is doing another one Saturday at 1 p.m. (Participants meet at the Mills Park Hotel, cost $5.)
Among the many stops on her tour — which includes remembrances of old churches, schools and the white-owned barbershop downtown that refused to cut a black man’s hair and that resulted in protests that landed 100 people in jail in 1964 — Malaya said her favorite story is about Wheeling Gaunt, who she describes as “pretty much the grandfather of Yellow Springs.”
A slave in Kentucky who bought his freedom, he ended up in Yellow Springs in 1862, and eventually owned property throughout Greene County. He left much of his estate to Wilberforce University and also deeded 9 ½ acres to Yellow Springs with one stipulation:
Proceeds from the rent were to be used at Christmas to purchase 10 pounds of flour for each of the widows in the village.
That practice remains today and city fathers have sweetened the deal and added sugar, too.
And the land became Gaunt Park, which is now the site of the town’s swimming pool and two softball fields.
Malaya said she looks forward to the tours, though every once in a while, she said, she has to stand up to scrutiny:
“Most people listen and are amazed about what happened here, but every once in a while someone wants to correct me on stuff that I studied real hard on,” she said with a shrug. “So I just say, ‘Thank you. We appreciate your information and we’ll take it into consideration.’
“But I know some of them think, ‘Oh she’s just a kid, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ … But that’s not so.”
After all, she is, as Gudgel noted, “not your typical kid.”
Headed to Kansas?
When it comes to Malaya, history is repeating itself.
When Addison White, her great, great grandfather fled a wealthy Kentucky slave owner in 1856, he traveled the Underground Railroad and ended up in Mechanicsburg where he sought refuge in the home of abolitionist Udney Hyde.
Several months later, the slave owner showed up with federal marshals to retrieve Addison, who instead barricaded himself with a gun in the log cabin and fended them off.
When the marshals returned in force, townspeople armed with pitchforks and shovels surrounded the house and kept them at bay. The marshals arrested several Mechanicsburg citizens and that’s when the Clark County sheriff and his posse tried to detain the heavy-handed marshals. Instead the local lawmen were savagely beaten.
In retaliation, an incensed mob overpowered the marshals and locked them up in the Springfield jail.
Finally, Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase intervened, and to de-escalate the situation, the people of Mechanicsburg paid the slave owner $950 to buy the release of Addison, who went on to serve in the Union Army in the Civil War.
Now, all these years later, some people in Yellow Springs are rallying to help Malaya get to the Junior Olympics in Kansas.
After her daughter’s strong showing in the four-state regional at Cedarville — Malaya finished second in the age 13-14 long jump with a leap of 13.89 feet and fifth in the 100-meter dash with a 13.96 second time — Maria was asked by the coaches if her daughter would make the trip to Kansas for the national meet.
“I just started crying because I didn’t know how we’d be able to do it,” Maria said.
Since June, she has been on medical leave from her job following complications from a breast biopsy where the incision has not healed and now requires special treatment.
That has put a financial burden on the family and then just last month, Malik and his Fairborn soccer team qualified for an Olympic Development Program tournament in St. Louis. John made that trip with him — Maria is not healthy enough to travel that far — and the expenses ate up any monetary cushion the family had.
“So I figured I wouldn’t be going to Kansas,” Malaya said.
But that’s when Gudgel and McGruder learned of the dilemma and put together an online Generosity fundraiser to help the family raise $1,500 so Malaya and her father — “A daddy-daughter trip,” said Maria — can drive to Kansas for the competition.
The fund-raising campaign was posted Tuesday and, to the surprise of the family, almost immediately donations from the community began to come in.
“I think people like my story, but there are also people who know me and just really care about me,” Malaya said quietly.
“It makes me feel really grateful that people believe in me and want me to go to Kansas and represent our town.”
As for people just getting know her daughter, Maria grinned as she relayed a teasing comment that’s been made by some of Malaya’s classmates:
“They describe her with her little Urkel-type horn rim glasses and they say, ‘Malaya, you look like a real nerd.’ But then she starts running and they said she turns into something else.”
Something like that, but not because of that mohawk atop her head or any artwork-funded spikes on her feet. It’s because of what’s found in between them, Gudgel said.
“She’s got this inquisitive nature about what makes the world tick,” he said. “It’s a curiosity about things that most kids that age don’t have.”
And such curiosity just may launch a new look for the Kansas trip, too.
The blue Mohawk is about to be replaced, she said:
“It’s gonna be purple.”
TO HELP MALAYA
To assist Malaya Booth in getting to the USATF Junior Olympic National Championships in Kansas July 24-30, donations can be made at: https://www.generosity.com/sports-fundraising/help-malaya-compete-in-the-2017-junior-olympics/x/16986491.
Donations also may be sent to: The 365 Project, P.O. Box 165, Yellow Springs, Ohio 45387. Write Malaya on the memo line of the check.