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Saturday, May 12, 2018

CONFRONTING THE SILENCE


Albany activist Shirey Archie wants more Americans — especially those in the “silent middle” — to stand against racism by acknowledging the pain of our national history

By Stephen Leon

“I have a 13-year-old son,” says Shirey Archie. “I have a black male child in a society that doesn’t do well with black male children. And when he was born, I realized I had inherited a big responsibility.”

I ask Archie (that’s his last name, and the name most commonly used by his friends and co-workers) if he has given his son “the talk.” He smiles knowingly, but instead of answering directly, he tells me a story, leaning in a little, his eyes fixed directly on mine across the top of my laptop screen.

“I came home one night,” he says, and his son was waiting for him. “He said, ‘Dada?’ I didn’t answer. He said, ‘Dada?’ I didn’t answer. “He said, ‘Dada, is that you?’ ”

“I said, ‘No, it’s not me,’ and I said it again, and then he said, ‘Why is it not you?’

“And I said, ‘Because I had an encounter with the police, and I’m not here.’ ”

Archie had gone out to buy Chinese food, and when he got back into the car, he forgot to turn on his lights before pulling away. He realized it and switched them on, but now a squad car was flashing its lights behind him.

The officer asked if he had forgotten to turn on his lights, and Archie politely explained that he had. Nothing came of the encounter.

“But here’s the thing,” he says. “It could have gone any number of ways. Depending on him, depending on me. And for a lot of people, it’s gone badly.”

To drive home his point, he tells a variation on the original story, like a filmmaker retracing the action but altering details to show a different outcome.

“Scene two: ‘Dada, is that you?’ ‘No, It’s Mama.’ ”

“Where’s Dada?”

“He had an encounter with the police.”

***





Shirey Archie is an eligibility examiner for the Albany County Department of Social Services, but he’s not interested in talking to me about his day job, and nudges me to move on by answering my question with a single word: “paperwork.”

We are here today, at a coffee shop in Albany, to talk about the other work he does, work he does not get paid for, work he believes in but whose effectiveness he has no way to measure.

“I have a sign in my car that says, ‘Stand Against Racism.’ ”

Archie stands and holds up the sign on street corners; lately he’s been standing once a week at the corner of Watervliet and Central avenues in Albany. For the people who ask to stand with him, he designated one day a month for them to join him.

The responses from passing drivers, he says, “range from horn blowing [widely understood to signal approval] to yelling the ‘N’ word, or ‘Get a job.’ ”

“The most significant to me is neither of those,” Archie says, “It’s the silence. I’m of the opinion that people like me in the liberal population think there are more people on our side than there really are.”

“If somebody goes by and honks,” he continues, “you have a general idea what they think. If somebody yells ‘Get a job,’ you have a general idea what they think. But if they’re silent, I have no idea.”

And it’s “the silence in the middle” that bothers and confounds Archie the most.


***


As his son comes of age during a time of palpable racial tension, Archie — who was born near Bill Clinton’s hometown of Hope, Ark., and raised in Niagara Falls, NY — reflects on how much has changed in his own lifetime, and concludes, not much.

He compares the lynchings of yesteryear, in which white supremacists in white robes and hoods killed innocent black men with no consequence, to the police shootings of today, in which men in blue uniforms kill innocent black men with no consequence.

“Race is the problem,” he says. “And my question is, how do good people allow this to happen? How can you sign on to your church creed and allow this to happen?”

Pressed to clarify what he means by “allow this to happen,” Archie says he is referring both to the election of Donald Trump — which emboldened white supremacists to voice their racism more aggressively — and more broadly, to a society that just can’t seem to make the issue a priority.

“Someone gets shot,” he says. “There’s a huge protest about it. Thousands of people show up in thousands of places. A week later, you can’t find two. Why? Because there’s no commitment to it.”

“For me, it’s not an issue. I live it every day.”

But he needs support, he says. He needs the support of the silent middle. He needs more people to do the mental work it takes to really understand what’s going on and do something about it.





“People don’t sit down and take a hard look at themselves,” Archie laments. “If they do, and they come out the other side, they’re committed. If they do the hard mental work and decide it’s not for them, fine. But it’s the people in the middle. The silent ones. I need an answer.”

We talk about various things people do to make themselves feel better: attend a protest, post about the issues on Facebook.

And of course, just feeling better isn’t enough. “You gotta feel bad before you feel better,” he says. “Come feel bad with me for a little while!”

He laughs at the way that sounds. Then his face turns serious again.

“The truth is, if you can’t look at our history, and really feel the pain of it, then you can’t come out of that with the energy you need to deal with it in the present.”

“It’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s not a dissertation. It’s not term paper.”


***


Archie does another kind of volunteer work, although he doesn’t consider it work so much as a responsibility to pay it forward. Having gone through his own dark times earlier in his life, he now helps people who have experienced similar troubles.

“I’ve been in recovery for 35 years, in 12-step programs,” he says. “After all this time, it’s simply a part of who I am. I don’t think I specifically make an effort to help.”

Archie describes “a period of time when I when I behaved badly, toward myself and others. This was primarily due to drinking and other forms of substance abuse. With a lot of help, I stopped the active abuse. With a lot more help, I am working on the changes necessary to stay sane and ‘sober.’ For me, not using has revealed how damaged I was before I ever drank. A lot of people relate to that.”

Archie’s claim that he doesn’t consciously try to help others comes across as characteristically modest understatement.

“I go to meetings. I share my life experience with people I meet when they ask.”

“I’m pretty straightforward,” he says. “People can be naive about the power of substances and how it changes folks’ behavior. And I simply try to clarify, as an end user. But not as an expert — just based on my experience, and willing to share without much reservation. Some people would rather not, but [if] you ask me a question, you’ll probably get an answer.”

“Being sober for me pushes that central responsibility. I could easily say to someone, ‘Take care of yourself, kid.’ But I couldn’t do that and consider myself a sober person at the same time.”


***


For Shirey Archie, a black man raising a black male child, a lot of thought goes into how to respond to words and situations that might be provocative, or hurtful, or hostile — and how to convey those lessons to his son.

He describes how he would take him to the Bethlehem Public Library, and how there was a young white girl who became his friend and played Minecraft with him. “And so I had to say to him that it would be possible that some group of boys might say something inappropriate to him, and that he had to know beforehand how he was going to respond, so [nobody would] get hurt.”

Thinking about this, Archie recalls another moment that took place in Delmar, at a peace vigil. The people taking part in the vigil, as well as the passersby, were mostly white. Archie was holding a sign that said, “War is not the answer.” A couple walking down the sidewalk approached him, and the man said, “What about the Civil War?”

Archie’s response was, “No war’s a good war.”

But he went home and thought about the other things he could have said.

“Part of the challenge,” he says, “when someone says something to me, I need to be careful how I respond. I need to be a little bit better than the comment.”

He talks about the hostile comments his son might hear, the tense situations he might face, the encounters with the police that might turn confrontational. Then he asks rhetorically, “Is that fair?”

Of course not. But it’s real.

“So what are we going to do about it?”

Archie raises his hands to the level of his head. “Nothing changes if we don’t put it up here.”

Then he lowers his hands until they’re out of sight — like the silent middle.

“But we keep it down here.”


***

Copyright 2018 Stephen Leon