Famous social activist Ruby Sales gives powerful speech at NCCU

Activist Ruby Sales sits center-stage preparing to give inspiration and wisdom through her poetic words. (Staff photo by Tenley Garrett)

“Wade in the water

Wade in the water, children,

Wade in the water

God’s gonna trouble the water.”

The negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” was lifted up in unison by the crowd gathered in the B.N. Duke Auditorium at North Carolina Central University.

An older black woman sat center stage, singing the hymn along with the crowd. Ruby Sales, the founder and director of The SpiritHouse Project, was seated in a crème-colored armchair, prepared to give a speech as a part of a Durham Community Conversations session.

As stated in her biography, “Ruby Nell Sales is a nationally-recognized human-rights activist, public theologian, and social critic, whose articles and work appear in many journals, online sites, and books.” The SpiritHouse Project was incorporated in 2001 by Sales.

As stated on the project’s website, “SpiritHouse is a social justice organization that brings multi-ethnic people and intergenerational communities together in a process of community formation.”

This Community Conversation with Ruby Sales is a part of a larger tour of speaking engagements and events in North Carolina.  The events were planned in cooperation with the Duke Chapel administration. Events took place over a three-day span, February 1-3, which included breakfast with the clergy and a conversation exclusively with North Carolina Central University students.

The event that took place at NCCU was planned in collaboration with the Department of Spiritual Dialogue and Development.

As Ms. Sales began her address, her words flowed out more as poetry than speech. It was a spoken-word performance. Sales began with the story of ships traveling to the Americas carrying passengers against their will.

“How did we sing our song in the strange new land?” said Sales. “That was the question the first generation of Africans who were captured by the waterside and found themselves wading in troubled waters, taken away from their familiar environment. Never to hear the sound of Big Mama’s voice again. Never to hear the sound of sister counting the grain again. Never to hear the village drums again.”

She carried the audience through time, connecting numerous events and people to a singular struggle.  Through her narrative, Sales told the story of white supremacy in America.  She spoke of events like the genocide of the Native Americans, the story of Ruby Bridges – the first black child to desegregate an all-white school – and the abuse of minority labor in the nation. Despite describing such dark aspects of America, past and present, Sales managed to convey a message of hope.

“I offer you a real privilege, and that is the privilege of becoming the best self that resides in you,” Sales said. “Movement is hard work, but we have to trouble the waters.”

Ms. Sales’ speech inspired many listeners, including students and faculty of NCCU.

The Rev. Gloria Winston-Harris, Director of the Department of Spiritual Development and Dialogue at NCCU, described her most important takeaway from Ms. Sales’ speech, discussing her concentration on “from womb to the tomb.”

She spoke of how Ms. Sales specifically requested her speech to be opened with a rendition of “Wade in the Water,” highlighting what she summarized as “wading through the lives of the children who endured.” The Reverend went on to elaborate on this point within the current social context: “movement is hard, but we must trouble the waters.”

“The one main thing I took away from her speech would be family and love,” said Deveyon Ross, an NCCU student and usher at the event. “She really emphasized family and love and how us all as a race should connect together and love one another.”

“Wade in the water, children.”

For more information about the SpiritHouse Project and Ruby Sales’ work, visit http://www.spirithouseproject.org/

For a printer-friendly version of this story, click here.