One of the delights of hanging a potent metaphor (which we’ve been told the dolphin strategy is) “out there” where all kinds of people are talking about changing the world is that you end up hearing from all kinds of people. For years now, we’ve been hearing from Keith Bowman, a self-professed “Gen X-er” with an eclectic imagination and a bulldog’s tenacity for pursing a variety of people, places and things, but he’d never told us his “Brother Blue” story until now. Here it is:

Many years back I was sitting on a park bench in Harvard Square, I idling away the time, when I found an African American man of about 60 was staring back at me. He was dressed from head to toe in blue, with a blue vest, blue pants, blue beret. He also had lightly tinged blue glasses and balloons attached to his arms. Harvard Square had long been known as a Mecca for the homeless and that’s who I assumed this man to be and long practiced in the dealing with such people, I attempted to break eye contact and look away. He leaned forward, removed his glasses and stared directly into my face. I noticed when he took his glasses off that he had imprints of a butterfly on each palm. Then he spoke. “From the middle of the middle of me, to the middle of the middle of you.” I was too stunned to respond, which was fortunate, because my strange bench partner was not allowing for a discourse, this was a performance. He then launched into a story. At first I thought it was just an inane ramble, but as he continued his tale of a man and his three daughters, I slowly began to realize something, he was telling the story of King Lear. I only knew this because in my sophomore class of English (which I was missing at that moment thanks to my truancy) we were studying King Lear. I have no memory of time; I was literally stunned into silence. This man moved through time and space with his tale seemingly without effort. After he finished he got up and began to walk away and I managed to mumble a request for his name. He looked back, smiled and said, “Brother Blue” and then left. It turned out that my homeless bench companion was a world famous storyteller who performed across the globe for over 60 years until his death in 2009. My experience with Brother Blue was a transformative one.

And how! This chance encounter with Hugh Morgan Hill, the African American educator, storyteller, actor, musician, street performer and living icon in Boston, in Cambridge, at Harvard University, MIT, and in the global oral storytelling community, changed Keith’s life. And is still changing it. Today, if you asked Keith what he’s involved in, be prepared to receive the short answer and the long answer. Here’s the short one: He’s working on a Ph.D. in educational studies at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. His field, he explains, is “loosely called Digital Humanities. And my subfields are Narratology, Media Studies and User Experience(UX).” But if you press him to reduce what he’s interested in to one word, and I have pressed him, it’s “storytelling.” And it all started with Brother Blue. (You can see Hill in action here.)

I’d say it was really a true epiphany. I know that word is heavily overused and I really don’t like sounding so high falutin’ . . . but it really was. After those first words I went into a profound trance and didn’t emerge until I had that flash of inspiration. Which Blue just riffed right off. What I’ve come to understand is that it was the dance between us (although I never would’ve even guessed that at that point) that was creating the experience. I guess to keep it simple: He caught me. Caught me like a sunset catches someone, or a first kiss, or just a delicious summer breeze on a muggy night. It really was a case of aesthetic arrest.

Hugh Morgan Hill died in 2009, depriving the likes of intellectual and literary luminaries like Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Zinn, Seamus Heaney, Kabir Sen, Warren Lehrer and on and on and on (see the previous Wikipedia link for a list of people he influenced) but the intellectually peripatetic Keith Bowman had long since scouted up additional mentors.

One was Walter Jackson Ong, the polymathic Jesuit Priest who taught at Saint Louis University for 30 years and once headed up the Modern Language Association of America as its president. Here is Keith on Ong:

Later on I ran into Walter Ong, Jesuit Priest, and heir apparent to his friend and advisor Marshall McLuhan and he told me about his theory on “Seconadary Orality.” Basically that we were hardwired to this kind of thing and were overcoming the “Guttenberg Parentheses,” and thanks to the burgeoning explosion of technology, we were emerging back into an Oral Tradition, from whence we came. He always said the “parentheses” part, slightly tongue in cheek, never dismissing written literature. He had no illusions that the written word was going anywhere, he just had this strong belief that at our core we were storytelling creatures, designed to swap stories first and foremost in an Oral Narrative.

Ong died in 2003. By then, Keith had managed to navigate his way into the inner orbit of another of America’s cutting-edge experts on the modern role of narrative storytelling. He’d done so with the assistance of Brother Blue’s spouse, Ruth Edmonds Hill, oral historian at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She had sent him to Kevin Brooks, another academically trained communications whiz who had pushed the postmodern world’s media technology envelope at Motorola, Apple and Hallmark Cards. Keith shares this:

Kev was doing something that really lit me off. He was at the MIT Media Lab doing his dissertation under Janet Murray and he was stuck until he ran into Brother Blue. Then a door opened for him and he completed his dissertation utilizing much of what he had learned at the knee of the master.  His theory, the Metalinnear Narrative, speaks to what is now known as Transmedia Storytelling. And it has been really fundamental jumping off point for me. We had some wonderful conversations and I really saw him as a mentor to me. . . . He got some dream job with Hallmark in Kansas City and got married. So all seemed blissful. And then very tragically he died way too soon.  Blue was pushing 90 when he died so although tragic for the community, I don’t think it was that big of a shock. But Kevin had one of those awful stories of very quick onset pancreatic cancer.

Which brings us to how Keith Bowman sauntered into the Brain Technologies’ bullpen. It happened because of his interest in the theory and writings of the late Clare W. Graves. Listen to Keith tell it:

All of this, storytelling and story listening represents a socially contracted learning process. That’s not to say it always works, it more often doesn’t, but I really think in many ways “evolving” at least in the social way, is “learning.”

Give you an example. I am a person whose culture gave every bit of their message to me to remain in a blue collar, working class world. For whatever reason, the message didn’t take. It was all around me, but just didn’t take. I am not even sure why.

I wasn’t a superstar student in secondary school. I was the first in my family to graduate high school in 1991 and I had no foreseeable funds or external motivation to even go to higher education.

But the itch needed to be scratched, so I found a way out of no way. I immediately found out I had a lotttttttt of catching up to do! Not just in subject matter but in social conditioning. You are taught different things in different social classes. I’m convinced of it, because I went through the process.

It’s not been in anyway easy, there have been a whole lot of sacrifices I have made and just some really dumb things I have done out of pure ignorance. But when it works, when it is the next, best, right thing it is something learned.

So at least for me Graves seems tied right into this, although he’s talking about whole groups of people. But I certainly went through evolutionary stages myself.

What I think I like about Graves so much is that there’s not endpoint. This ain’t’ your Mother’s Maslow Pyramid we are talking about. It goes onward and upward.

I also find Graves very illuminating in learning abut myself. My advantages and pitfalls. When I took [BTC's Asset Report®: The Book of You, based in part on the Graves theory], I fell very squarely in the Trailblazer home base. This made perfect sense to me intuitively, and the pitfalls that go along with it have certainly been mine. We Blazers go large breadth and not enough depth sometimes. And the two strategies for moving forward either Breakthrough or Escape, describe me almost to a scary point.

[But] I am a child of the television age. I am a Gen Xer, so we were the first generation that Sesame Street was aimed at. That has just had a profound effect on me for whatever reason and so what differs from me through Blue is I do it through media.

I’ve made student documentaries and interned on professional ones. But really, what I am truly interested in is the “structure” of story. What lies just under the surface. That’s where I am headed. And especially how has that been altered by this age we live in.

Keith never met Brother Blue beyond that one encounter. But it changed his life. And based on what we now know about Keith Bowman, I’m not doubting but that he’s one of those pursuit-minded, ever-questioning, always-learning minds who we depend on to change the world. And that, dear hearts, is “from the middle of the middle of me, to the middle of the middle of you.” RIP, Brother Blue! And onward and upward, Brother Bowman!

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