A Duet: Brother Blue & Ruth Edmonds Hill
Brother Blue to Ruth: We've been together a long time. You've heard me tell many stories, and I've watched you in your work, collecting oral histories, over the years. But though we know a great deal about each others work and each others aspirations in the work, there is much that we don't know. Let us ask questions as though we don't know the answers, and ask questions we've never asked each other before. How should we begin?
Ruth: Let's just start. What is your life work?
B: I'm a storyteller. That's my passion, my madness, my calling from God.
R: How did you get into it?
B: When I was a little boy, I felt this urge, this call to help ease the suffering in the world. I couldn't stand to see people, animals, and creature suffering. I didn't like to see people pick flowers, because I believed it hurt the flowers. It was killing the flowers. You might say this was like a call to my soul. It's like a priest, a minister, a rabbi, being called to serve God and all God's creatures. I guess I was born with this calling. But I must say definitely that by being the only black kid in my neighborhood, in my school, I experienced rejection. I was the outsider in an all white world. I was like on black button in a field of snow. And we were poor, in the real sense of the word. But there was a teacher in my school who believed in me. She looked past the muddy water in my eyes. She saw my beautiful butterfly, something inside me like my soul. She heard me cry - the yearning in me. She call the butterfly out of me with love. I was dying inside. She said she saw something beautiful in me, something with wings like a butterfly. Then I knew my body, my color, my skin - all of that- was like a cocoon holding something inside of me that was immortal. I fell in love with that teacher. How could I help it? I tried to be what she saw in me, the butterfly. I wanted to be like this teacher. I wanted to save the lost, the crying, the dying, like she saved me.
R: People should know that's why the butterfly is so important to you as a symbol, why you wear the butterfly on your hands, on your face, on your clothes when you are performing.
B: Oh, there's something else I must say. I has this brother. He was beautiful to look at, physically he was perfect. he couldn't read or write. I had to bathe him at night. This brother influenced my life. I felt I had to take care of him for life. I t was a life commitment to me. I saw how people treated my brother who could not read or write, who could not bathe himself. I saw the cruelty, the indifference of people, the way they treated my brother. That's when I made up my mind to help the outsider, the lost sheep, the lonely, the scorned, the despised, the "poorest of the poor."
R: What is the focus of your life as a storyteller, could you sum it up in a sentence or two?
B: Yes. I want to be God's fool as a storyteller, a fool for love, a fool for justice, a fool for truth. I want to heal everything that's broken in this world. The broken bodies, the broken minds, the broken hearted.
R: How can you do all of this as a storyteller?
B: By living a focused, concentrated, consecrated life as a storyteller. I must live the story, the story unconditional love for every creature in this manger called earth.
R: That sounds pretty high. How do you do such a thing?
B: Remember I told you I wanted to be God's fool, a fool for storytelling? I pray that God speaks to all creatures through me as I tell stories. And I pray that I speak to the God in the listener. For me, storytelling is God talking to God, face to face. It's like praying out loud.
R: Tell me again why you call yourself God's fool, a fool for storytelling.
B: Well, every morning while you're still sleeping, I'm up, just before the break of day, on my knees in prayer, facing the east. I drink a little water - tap water - from my communion chalice and eat a grape or a piece of bread, and vow to turn this food and drink into stories to feed the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the lost, the scorned, the prisoner, the poorest of the poor.
R: You sound like a preacher.
B: As you know, I am an ordained minister.
R: Where is your church?
B: My church is in the street, in the subways, in the fields. My parish is street people, in all the streets of the world. My church is everywhere on this earth, where there is suffering, where there is in justice, where there is hate, indifference, war. My church is everywhere on this earth under this magic, mysterious root of sky, stars, moon and sun. All of this is my church, my cathedral, my temple, my synagogue, my mosque, my theater, my school.
R: Who was or is your teacher, your model?
B: Well across time and space: Jesus, the storyteller. In our time there's Mother Theresa. We talked face to face for a long time about her work. And I asked what I should do as a storyteller. She didn't answer me directly, but when she died, I awoke to her message. She comforted and blessed the dying. Her life was the story. She was answering my questions. She was telling me to live that story. Tell stories with all your being, for all of us, because we are all at the point of death. You listen to stories and tell stories as though God is the teller and listener. That's the way Mother Theresa did her work for the dying. She taught me that storytelling is the way of life. I'm trying to life the story. That's why I pray at the break of day, and at night before I fall into sleep. I pray that the creator tells stories through me and helps me life the committed life, to tell the story to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, set the captive free. This kind of storytelling is what I live for, what I will die for. Every meal for me is like "the last supper" in the Gospel story. I pray that I turn this food and drink into the good deed, the nourishing deed, so that my words and life feed those who are hungry and thirsty in the belly, in the heart, in the mind, in the soul. That's it, Sweet Lady.
R: Now, you ask me some questions.
B: Tell me more about oral history.
R: Many people don't know what oral history is. The most direct way to describe it is to say that through interviews, one collects information that is to be preserved for historical reasons. B: Tell me precisely what you do.
R: Well, in my work at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, I coordinate the activities involved in collecting, transcribing, editing, and preserving the stories of women's lives.
B: How long have you been doing this?
R: About 20 years. My first project was the Black Women Oral History Project. We interviewed 72 African American women who were mostly in their seventies and older. From that we developed a traveling photographic exhibition, "Women of Courage," which has been shown at probably 50 different sites in the United States. At the moment, I am working with someone in Toronto who wants the exhibition for the month of February, which is Black History Month there too. I have also worked with women who worked in the federal government, who were involved in the early years of the National Organization for Women. I also work with a group developing the Chinese-American Women Oral History Project, and the Cambodian-American Women Oral History Project. It is interesting that my work is so closely related to yours as a storyteller.
B: Yes, it is closely related to my work. Now, I want to tell you something from my heart, from my soul. I'm so impressed with this work you're doing. I want you to know and all the work to know that your work inspires me. I feel that your stories of women's lives, as they have told them, women of many colors, from different economic, social, religious strata, reveal the heroism, the noble possibility people can rise to. These women were and ware warriors in the human struggle. If I were asked which one of us was doing the most transformative healing work in this world to bring about change, I would say that the stories you collect are more revelatory, more powerful, more appealing to the hears, minds, and souls of the world-wide human family than the stories I tell.
R: I don't agree with that completely. I know that you have told stories in many prisons, and that perhaps 25 years from now someone who is out in the world will remember a story you told, and how it helped him when he was incarcerated. Your storytelling has had a great impact on people. The problem with my work is that it end up in a library, and unless a scholar comes and asks for one of the interviews, it is pretty much lost.
B: Just this past week we were in the subway, about to pay our fare, and a man stepped out. He covered the fare box and said, "You don't pay. i remember you from 1977, when I was in prison. You changed my life." Then he shook my hand and hugged me. Then he turned to you, Ruth, and thanked you. That often happens when we see someone we met in prison many years ago. You brought them something I couldn't bring them. These men were starved for the kindness and attention of a good woman.
R: Probably what was more important than my presence was that I had brought with me somethings tangible: bread I had baked. A small loaf for every man who came to the chapel to hear your stories. If I visited the same prison more than once, the men started giving orders for the kind of bread they wanted the next time.
B: Well, you know the brothers. That's called black chutzpah. Thirty years later they could tell you what kind of bread you brought. And you remember that time when a riot broke out while we were visiting a prison?
R: You were doing your doctoral presentation in the prison. Pretty unusual place for such a presentation. You were telling stories with a 27-piece band of inmates. At a certain point, a riot broke out and they began locking the men up. The men who had not been locked up were throwing the bread I had baked up to the men behind the bars. And the men behind the bars reached out to catch the bread. Believe me, it touched me. You can't forget something like that.
B: I'll never forget it either. The images are in my soul. We are a team, you and I.
R: Yes, I go to prisons with you and to every other place where you are storytelling. And you come with me when I am lecturing or doing oral history workshops.
B: You're my angel. You've been there when I was in the street, barefoot, in rain, wind, and snow, n the storm.
R: In the blizzard of 1978, you were on top of a "mountain" of snow at Harvard Square, telling stories to a large, entranced crowd.
B: Sometimes the gathered crowd is a storm. Some dude will try to blow me off the corner. Do you remember the time in Toronto when I was telling stories in the street, and some guy in the crowd challenged me, began to mock me. He threatened me.
R: And I began to cry, saying, " You don't have to put up with this."
B: I said, "Woman, you can't stop me. Don't even try. The only way I'll leave this corner is if I die. I'm, crazy that way." The power came down in me. The man backed off. He got some idea what he was dealing with.
R: This kind of thing has happened several times. Earlier you spoke of being focused. You call storytelling your sacred mission. You are living it, ready to die for it. You call it being focused. Other people call it being a crazy fool.
B: Yes. I'm God's fool. Mother used to say to everybody, "He don't know no better." I would always take things past the limit. I was born that way.
R: And one of my jobs is to keep you from going past the limit, to keep you in this world. You try to get along without eating, without sleeping. Someone has to keep your feet on the ground.
B: You are so right. You are my Beatrice. I'm like that Dante cat who saw his angel Beatrice on top of the mountain called Paradiso. He was in the middle of his life in the dark wood, but he saw Beatrice, his angel. Because of her, he tries to be good. That's what happened to me. Ruth, you know when I first met you, I was in the dark wood, lost. But when I looked in your eyes I fell in love with the beauty, the good, the truth in you. Because of you, I do what I do.
R: There you go again, doing your arias. You can't dream your way through this life.
B: Listen, baby, we are a team, and order of two, trying to change the world. That's what I think marriage is - two people under the guidance of heaven, bringing forth babies. the stories I tell are born of Brother Blue and Ruth. they are like children born of two. Yes. I'm a dreamer, but heaven sent you to me to keep me in touch with this world. Without you, I might stray from the beat, the music of the lead line. Thank you. Even as we're talking here, you've been pulling me back in the lead line. You spoke of the facts, the concrete things you had done. Here it is - some of the concrete down-to-earth things about me, to show I'm not jiving. I have traveled across this country and Canada telling stories mostly in the streets and prisons, but also in schools and universities. I founded and am still directing storytelling workshops at Harvard University and at many other colleges and universities across the world. I have been to 7 countries, where I've told stories in streets, parks, cathedrals, prisons, universities, barefoot in the snow in the Alps of Switzerland - following my sacred calling, trying to change the world. I also was the official storyteller for the United Nations Habitat Forum.
B: Oh, one more note, a grace note, if anybody asked you why I do what I do, just say that Brother Blue is a fool for God.
Louise Stewart: Brother Blue, would you please tell me why it is in Harvard Square you started going barefoot?
B: Thank you, dear one, that's a deep question. I'm going to try to answer you from my soul. No one has asked me that question before. I believe you are a messenger reminding me to say this. Storytelling, to me - the way I go about it - is sacred ground. I want to take my shoes and stockings off on the sacred ground, where stories are told, soul to soul. It's like we're in church. I still love to take my shoes off when I'm telling stories, my shoes and stockings except when there is broken glass in the street - nails, tacks, slivers that get into my feet. To me it's always sacred storytelling. Sometimes I kneel before I tell a story, sometimes I pray, sometimes I go prostrate in a church. I am asking the great creator to give me something that will feed the people, heal the people, transform the world. It's holy ground! That's why I take my shoes and stockings off. Sometimes I kneel on the ground, sometimes I kiss the holy ground, hoping the power will come through me to speak to the souls of people. Louise you are the first person to ask me that serious questions. Louise Stewart, our good angel, you are the one who suggested this interview and you are the supervisor of this interview, and you did some of the serious typing, the transcription of this interview. We must thank you publicly. We want to say to you we, a team, Brother Blue and Ruth, we thank you again and again. And we love you forever and ever and evermore. Amen.
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