In Conversation With Ruby Sales, Veteran Of The Civil Rights Movement And The Inspiration Behind 'Where Does It Hurt?'

Hi folks! Below is the transcript of an extraordinary conversation I had via Skype with legendary American civil rights activist Ruby Sales. Ruby's interview a few years ago on the On Being podcast inspired my recent song 'Where Does It Hurt?'. (You can read all about that here. ) I was totally delighted when she agreed to speak with me (and a little nervous!) What transpired was a conversation I will never forget, touching on so many themes as you'll read below.

Here's our conversation:

Katy: It’s a real honour to speak to you and thank you for finding the time to speak with me. For anyone who doesn’t know about you and your work, I wondered if you could say a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Ruby: Yes, thank you very much. I am what I call a social critic, a human rights advocate and a long-distance runner for justice.

K: Yeah!

R: And I began my work as a student during the Southern Freedom Movement, commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement. And basically, I worked in a county called Lowndes County, Alabama, with an organisation called the Student Non-Violent Co-Ordinating Committee. My first movement was about racial justice and then I moved from working for racial justice to gender justice, economic justice and then LGBTQ justice. So, I’ve been sitting on my front porch, wading in the waters of justice for many, many years.

K: That’s incredible. I don’t think I was aware of all of those things. I know about Spirithouse project a bit – I really like the hindsight, insight and foresight phrase that you use with that. I think that’s really powerful.

R: Yes, I think that all social movements must be grounded in history in order to understand and create strategies for the present and the present must always imagine what might be in the future. And it’s also intergenerational – hindsight, foresight, insight also requires intergenerational connection.

K: I work with a project called In Her Shoes which is about gender equality in the UK and promoting the rights of women and young girls. So much work has been done but there’s so much more still to do for so many people.

R: I think that women are the poorest people in the world and we are the people with the least amount of power. And if you’re a black or brown woman then you have the least amount of power of all people.

K: Have you been involved in protests this year?

R: Well, yes, I was involved in protests. I’ve organised two protests! I’ve organised three protests, actually, I forgot. One protest has to do with organising on behalf of black and brown refugees who were put in a silent terror that we call a detention centre in New York, that was one. And another protest had to do with the question of detaining refugees in this country. Actually, a lot of times this year working on refugee questions and women’s questions and racial justice questions.

K: It’s inspiring to hear about your work.

R: I really am questioning the efficacy of marching which has lessening significance than it did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was very radical to march in the ‘60s and ‘70s, particularly for African Americans, since they had never … marched …. on the streets of America. For us to do that, it was really radical. But now it’s becoming less and less radical. Because the whole purpose of protest is to expose the ugliness of the system by provoking the system to show itself. Marching, unfortunately, does not do that any more.

K: What is the way then, in your view?

R: I think we have to look at things like hunger strikes and new ways of protesting in the 21st century that’s relevant to the climate that we live in today.

K: I also think there’s a great power in organising community and getting people to be together and connected to each other as a way of changing society, as a way of bringing people together and changing how they think about other people. For me, that feels important.

R: I think, Katy, there are many ways of bringing people together and the only thing that I’m saying is that any authentic movement needs to evaluate the strategy. For example, on the streets of America, a non-violent protest is no longer on the streets. They’ve been invaded by right-wing militias and agent provocateurs and therefore they’ve lost control of the message. And any time in a movement when you lose control of the message and you no longer control the territory, you shift to a new territory so that your message does not become stolen or contaminated. So I’m saying that marching is good if you’re showing how the system is violent because when we marched, the system went crazy and showed everybody how violent it was. If the system just says ‘Oh well, we’re a democracy, look how we let people march! Oh wow! Look how generous we are!’ It underscores democracy and you haven’t shown anything about the system that you’re trying to expose. You haven’t gained any new converts which is the whole purpose of direct action – not to change the system in a moment ‘cos you can’t do that but it’s to give other people courage to join the struggle and to find their voices.

K: I have had some experience of organising protests. Obviously, you can’t control other people in a protest environment and what they do is their own action.

R: You can’t control people but you set up a system whereby you have as much control as possible: you train people; you have marshalls; you have people monitoring the crowds to make sure that the moment they see someone who might be a provocateur that they shut the person down; and that you have lawyers who are ready to bail people out of jail; you have communications people who, when an agent provocateur provokes the violence, then your communications person is able to go to the press straight away and articulate what really happened. It’s about discipline. No, you can’t control people but it’s about having a disciplined strategy.

K: And I suppose for me, one of the ways I try and influence people is by writing songs. That’s the thing that I realise is what I do. Trying to affect people emotionally, impact on people in a heart kind of way.

R: Well, I’m sure that’s the case because your music definitely influenced and impacted me when I heard the song. Can I tell you what moved me about the message?

K: Sure!

R: Well, first of all, I think we live in a world where no matter our race, no matter our gender, no matter our age, that we experience some damage, some systemic damage – overall damage of living in a world that is rapidly becoming anti-human, and rapidly becoming anti-democratic. If you add that with the personal hurt that we endure in life when we’re children from older people and when we become adults, from each other, I think the real issue that we must deal with is to articulate both the systemic hurt that hurts all of our lives. Because what people in power tell people is that to have the kind of power that exists, their power, is to be privileged and I don’t think so. You might have materialism, but I don’t believing there’s anything privileged about erasing your gender, erasing your sexuality, erasing your age, your religion and just become white, to have just skin identity. I see that as soul suicide and I think we all need to recover from soul suicide and become more than just the colour of our skin as our single identity.

K: I was thinking about this yesterday. I was writing about why I wrote the song. Because I’m gay and I came out when I was 20. The systemic heteronormative model of life had already had it’s impact on me if you know what I mean?

R: Yes, absolutely!

K: Every character in a book was straight, in the 80s and 90s at least, when I was growing up. There were just no other options. Straight relationships were what were presented and so, for me, there was a huge amount of shame that I encountered when I came out. And actually only recently realising that that was what was going on. As we know about problems of the system, as we become aware and more fluent in that kind of language about systemic racism, systemic gender inequality – all the things which benefit certain people and push down others. Your interview on the On Being podcast (a year and a half ago I heard it) it really moved me. The story you tell about just asking someone that question ‘Where Does It Hurt?’. I was driving at the time through mountains in Wales and I just cried hearing that interview. It had a huge impact on me. It really made me think about where does it hurt within me and people I love and people I know. It was just incredibly powerful - which is what spurred me in to writing that song.

'Where Does It Hurt?' OFFICIAL VIDEO
'Where Does It Hurt?' OFFICIAL VIDEO

R: Today more than ever, I think the global world is in a deep state of hurting. And because we have not been taught how to express that hurt in the direction that it should go, often times we internalise it and turn it against each other or against ourselves.

I want to get back to something you said that I found fascinating. Because, when I was coming up, when I was in my adolescent years and struggling with my sexual identity, I passed by a bookstore in my hometown where I saw in the window a book by a British author. Her name was Radclyffe Hall!

K: The well of loneliness?

R: Yes! And I find it very interesting that that was the book that kept me sane and while you were right there in England and you could not find any voices that really expressed what it meant to come of age as a Lesbian woman.

K: Well, it’s interesting there was one book by British author, Jeanette Winterson, called ‘Written On The Body’ which a friend of mine gave me when I was 17. She had her suspicions that it might be useful to me, I think!

But even by then, even having that, it took so much undoing! You need to undo so much even within yourself in order to accept that this is ok and that this is who you are and this is how you are!

R: Coming from America, I imagine that in England there’s a lot of class hurt that never gets talked about. Classism exists in America, it gets hidden under white nationalism, but classism is very deep in America. Ordinary white people would never be invited to join the Sentry Club, or the Cosmos club or even be able to go to Princeton in large numbers or Harvard in large numbers. So classism really exists, but what happens is it is subverted in to white nationalism under the mythological lie that all white people, because they have white skin live the same lives. And that keeps a false unity among white people. But classism is really alive, even within the black community. There has been a black middle class since the 1870s because there are 111 historically black colleges that have been producing a black middle class since the 1870s. And so, it is a mythology that all black people are poor and all white people have more than black people. That’s a mythology – it just isn’t true!

K: But that myth is perpetuated because it benefits some people I suppose?

R: It benefits the ruling class.

K: Exactly!

R: It keeps a false unity and it really makes working class and economically dispossessed white people vote against their own interests, to think that their interests is the same thing as Donald Trump’s, who, by the way, would never invite an economically-dispossessed white person to his country club.

K: No. One thing I think is a real issue is that we’re very much in our silos, in terms of surrounding yourself with people who agree with you whether it’s in real life or in the online world. It’s a rejection of people who don’t hold the same views as you. And I know that the work that YOU do is very much about bringing people from different, disparate communities together, trying to connect them.

R: Absolutely! But I do think that what we’ve got to understand is that, although nation states still exist, the lines are not as rigidly drawn as they once were in a global, capitalist technocracy where global elites rule the world. And so, I think that it’s really important for us to understand that in a technocracy, individualism is accelerated and although it appears that we are more intimate with technocracy, in fact it perpetuates non-intimacy. We’ve got to really begin to make the connection between living in silos, the non-intimacy that we experience, the loneliness and the aches that we experience and some of the hurt and some of the smallness that we experience. All of those things are tied in to a global technocracy.

K: That makes a lot of sense. During the Lockdown, at least here in the UK, people are noticing the things that they really need to keep them sane and keep them emotionally connected. Whilst technology has a lot of use in that, I think people are just desperate for human connection right now. I’m really glad to hear your voice because, although we’ve emailed, it’s also wonderful to feel a connection through your voice.

R: We’re in the 21st century. We’ve got to understand the shifts that have happened in the world since the 1970s and we’ve got to understand that a technocracy not only diminishes access to labour and jobs (because human labour is replaced by machines and technology) but also human intelligence is replaced by artificial intelligence and human history is replaced by virtual history. I’ve lived history and I don’t think our analysis has caught up with the reality of the world that we live and therefore there’s a deep hunger, an insatiable hunger that we’ve not figured out ways to attend to, because we haven’t done the deep thinking about the nature of the hunger.

So, I think that thee first place you began, the question on the song ‘Where Does It Hurt?’, I think that is a question that I’m so glad you’re posing. Because I believe that that question will really prevail people to really begin to ask themselves ‘Where DOES it hurt?’. I think when we begin to ask ourselves ‘where does it hurt?’, we’ll begin to realise that our hurt is just like someone else’s hurt. And it is through that that we will begin to come to know each other and to be related to each other in very different and profound ways.

K: Yep. I agree fully with that statement. Thank you so very much for your time and your thoughts and your energy. It really is an honour and a privilege to talk to you. I’m very grateful.

R: I’m very honoured and very moved that you took the question and made art out of it. No one’s ever taken a question that I’ve raised and made art out of it… well, a poem but not a song! So I’m so grateful and so moved. Thank you so much. It brought tears to my eyes. Thank you.

Ruby Sales was speaking to Katy Rose Bennett on 16th September 2020 via Skype from Atlanta, Georgia.

Ruby is founder of the Spirithouse Project: http://www.spirithouseproject....

Ruby's original On Being Interview:

Pre-order my (Katy's) new album 'Where Does It Hurt?' here: https://katyrosebennettmusic.b...


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