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  • Writer's pictureDon Rearden

Communion, Cancer, and a Common Cause: Black Lives Matter

Today people across the nation march in protest of the systemic racism in our country and the killing of George Floyd, including right here in Alaska. All this while Annette and I sit in the safety and comfort of our home. Make no mistake, we would also be out with signs demanding changes to a system that affords us the privileges the two of us have be afforded to everyone, but by joining a large crowd, we would be exposing her and her fragile immunity to too many unknowns.

Annette and I have spent our careers in service to social justice here in Alaska, a place with incredible diversity, but an Iditarod-length journey to go in terms of equality and justice for all. As educators, and parents of young children, we want to see an America that supports the education and health and well-being for everyone; however, this change cannot and will not happen until people understand that the Black Lives Matter Movement doesn’t exclude other lives, including your own ---- it means that until we have a society that values black lives, there is no equality. When people march for Breast Cancer awareness and wear pink ribbons, they aren’t saying other cancers don’t matter. When Pro-Life rallies are held, I’m fairly sure the attendees aren’t saying the lives of the already born don’t matter. Are those fair comparisons? No. Especially if you’re black.

If you’re not black, I would ask for you to, for one moment, think about your last interaction with law enforcement and relive the event and try to remember what feelings you had when the lights flashed in your review or when the officer began to question you. Did you fear you’d be pulled out of your car, beaten, or shot? I’ve only been pulled over twice in my life (three if you count a time when I was twelve and driving a motorcycle with two older girls in bikinis riding behind me down the highway, but that is another story). The first time happened in college, on campus in Fairbanks, when the police lights flashed. The University policeman approached my truck and asked, “can you tell me why there are five of you in a vehicle designed for three?”

“We’re a band?” I joked.

The officer looked us over. One white male. Four Yup’ik males.

“They Funky Eskimos?” he asked.

We're a band? The Funky Eskimos! (from left to right --- Kevin and Chris Morgan, myself, and Ralph Sara.

I nodded. We were headed to record our first album, I told him. He let us go. No ticket. Just a warning. I didn’t show an ID. Or my registration. Wasn’t asked for insurance. We didn’t have seatbelts on. Not only was I not afraid. I joked with the officer. And he joked back. This leniency only confirmed what I knew growing up, the cops were on my side, but my buddy Chris Morgan, who lived in Los Angeles during the riots after the Rodney King verdict in 1992, was quick to point out that we were lucky the one white guy in the band was at the wheel.

I was raised in a law enforcement family, with a bone deep respect for the law and the system --- because that is what I was taught and that is what I knew -- so I didn’t grow up fearing police because, as a white male I never had to. Likewise, Annette grew up with family in Michigan who were in law enforcement. We’ve known the good guys and “to serve and protect” always meant something positive for us. Our friends haven’t been so lucky.

For me this Black Lives Matter movement is deeply personal and is rooted in family history and the lives of my dear friends and family. When we moved back to Montana when I was a kid, I went from being the only white boy in the Alaska village of Akiak to having Kris and Dwight as my two best friends in Montana be the only two not-white kids I knew in Montana. My experience in the Yup’ik culture had me feeling like I didn’t quite get white culture anymore, and my time with Kris and Dwight opened my eyes to the racism present there. The life we lived together would make for a pretty funny movie. Three kids out in the country, riding horses and motorcycles, shooting guns, break-dancing and intently listening to the first voices of what would be derisively called “gangsta rap.” Their mother had been my mom’s dear friend when they were kids, during a time when that was outright taboo, and she relayed stories of their struggles together. I heard my fair share of foul things tossed my way when Kris and Dwight and I were in public, and about every other day for the first year on the playground at Meadow Lark Elementary, Kris would relay which kid called him a name and I would deliver some playground justice. I mostly felt empathy for those kids, and didn’t actually hurt them, but I always got a promise they wouldn’t “say that name or anything like it again.” But violence or threats of violence isn’t how you change minds or keep people from being racist or mean and it isn’t how you maintain order. The four hundred little minds at that school didn’t start loving Kris because I sat on them on the asphalt of the playground or tackled them a little extra hard on the field during a pick-up football game and held them for a whisper into their ear, no --- they overcame their ignorance and the influence of their own family history by befriending him.

Inseparable Friends --- Kris and I at my grandmother's house.

Our own country’s history is built upon generations of oppression and systemic racism. Much of our current infrastructure right here in Alaska was built by black troops during World War 2. We wouldn’t arm them and let them fight the Japanese, but we didn’t have any problem with black soldiers building our roads, bridges, airports, and facilities. We don’t teach that part of Alaskan or American history in our school, just like we don’t question the disproportionate number of black males we’ve built a huge industry incarcerating. We have five percent of the world’s population, but twenty-one percent of the world’s imprisoned people. The incarceration rates for Black people compared to white people are five times higher, and prison and jail populations if African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites would decline nearly 40%. Think of the money we could spend on education and healthcare for all if we could heed this call for Black lives to really matter.

I’ll close now, as I’ve moved out into the sun to write this, and Annette has moved from the couch to the hammock on the deck. In the time it took me to write this, four bears came through the yard at different times. Saturdays, two days after chemo she moves a little slower than usual, except when it’s time to jump up and watch the next bear meandering through the property. She’s never too tired or not feeling well enough not to hop up to watch a bear pass by.

Annette has two more rounds of chemo and then radiation, and this week marked the sixth chemo treatment, but also as a powerful day with family. On Tuesday our boy received his first communion, and he got to share the occasion with a cousin. The church made special accommodations for Annette and her cousin, as both of them (originally from Michigan) are going through treatments for different forms of cancer here in Alaska. Strange, right? This was a full Catholic mass, streamed live for relatives, in an empty church with only us. That alone made it surreal, and the masks added another level of bizarre. All this during protests and a pandemic. I don't think it matters if you're Catholic or not, if the idea of this special "communion" doesn't convince you, well...perhaps nothing will.

1st Communion Cousins

My wife and her cousin are both tough women and if you don’t like my arguments or what I had to say here today, you can take it up with them. But be warned, they are bears themselves, and you're likely to lose! Two women I love and admire, both fighting for their own lives, and yet they won’t mince words if you want to argue with either of them whether black lives matter.

You may ask: why write an update about your wife’s cancer treatments and tie it to something so political? Why bother to say Black Lives Matter when the person you love is on the couch on a sunny Alaskan summer day recovering from her sixth round of chemotherapy?

The answer to us is that right now the two are inseparable. Racism is a cancer in our country that is long overdue for its own chemo treatment.

Round 6 in the Books...Red Devil work your magic! Two to go!

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