White Fear Does Not Excuse Racism, But Empathy Might Dispel It

White people are afraid of black people.

Or maybe, more accurately, too many white people are afraid of black people.

They don’t “get them,” (as one fellow confessed to me); they find them mysterious, unknowable, different; less than, fear inducing. They blame their cultural ignorance on, “what I see in the news every day,” or “this black guy who was weird to me once,” or “they are known to be more violent” or “but they hate most white people too” (all things said to me out loud). And with that litany of presumption and stupidity, empathy is lost and the “privilege” of white fear is allowed to call the shoots, turning, say, Starbucks into a cultural flashpoint.

Why are we so afraid of each other?

For blacks, it’s not a difficult question to answer: deep historical precedent, and contemporary bias, prejudice, and lack of equal treatment. In the justice system. The economic system. The medical system. The education system. Probably every system existing in America today. Strides have been made since overtly racist pre-civil rights days, but when, on an almost daily basis, there continue to be indefensible police shootings of unarmed black men, overzealous prosecutions and disproportionate imprisonment; endless forms and manifestations of every kind of bigotry and intolerance, it’s not hard to fathom why a black person might fear a white person, particularly one with a gun, a badge, or a judge’s robe; particularly when white people still hold the keys to most (all?) centers of power in this country.

What’s the excuse for white people? What are they so afraid of? Beyond generalized prejudices like being anti-affirmative action, or holding erroneous presumptions that blacks are government-sucking “welfare queens” (when the greatest number of welfare recipients are white), what are they so fearful of? Why the lock-your-car-when-one-gets-too-close, cross-to-the-other-side-of-the-street-if-one-approaches, shoot-before-taking-other-tactical-deescalation-steps, call-the-cops-without-considering-ramifications kind of racial fear?

Given the ubiquity of facts and studies on race, given the statistics on both white and black perpetrators of crime and violence; given the benign interactions most whites have experienced with black people; given the incalculable contributions the black community has made to American life, it’s hard to put that fear down to anything other than “the fog of white privilege mixed with lack of empathy.”

White privilege – empathy = fear = racism.

That’s an unhappy equation. Particularly when science assures us that “race is not a thing,” [National Geographic, 10.14.17].

“What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.” ~ Svante Pääbo, a biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany [emphasis added]

In other words: we’re all made of the same stuff; the color of our skin, location of our family’s ancestry; ethnicity of our DNA notwithstanding.

But some refuse that information, that reality. They’d rather conjure a world categorized by castes, orders of ethnic importance; pyramids of racial superiority, chains of command built on the possession of wealth… fomenting a human history rife with wars, genocide, conflict, fear, and ignorance, basedirrationally, on race, that thing that doesn’t actually exist. Illogical, but persistent.

Here in contemporary America, for example, the last person to “win” (yes, in quotes) the title of POTUS did so by appealing to the fears of white Americans who reject shifting demographics; resent the impending loss of majority status, the influx of diversity, and the widening influence of people of color and diverse religions and ethnicities. “Make America Great Again” was the rallying dog whistle for a message of, “let’s keep things nice and white,” and that message resonated with a dispiriting number of fearful white folks.

And fear is the foundation of modern racism. I say “modern” because back when plantation owners tormented slaves, post-Civil War America treated freed blacks like sub-humans, or Jim Crow laws saw sociopathic bigots inflict white-sheeted terror with impunity, it wasn’t fear driving the train; it was power. White patriarchy. Ignorance, ingrained hate, embrace of false narratives, and the pervasive certainty of superiority. The only fear that existed was that of blacks whose very lives could be snuffed out with the flick of a rope-wielding wrist, the trembling accusations of a mendacious white woman, or the bilious hate of white men immune to basic decency.

Still, in these modern times, when we now have laws protecting blacks from such abuses, racism remains, still ingrained, still wreaking havoc, but driven and perpetuated by—yes, all the above—but also, most overarchingly, by fear.

Fear of other. Fear of who or what isn’t known. Fear of presumed danger. Fear of what one has heard or read about the feared group. Fear of losing perceived power or status. Fear of change, of diversity, evolution and progress. Fear, unexplained. Fear that leads to race-based overreaction.

Like when a white Starbucks manager gets so rattled by two black men waiting for a friend before ordering that she’d call the police and get them arrested rather than behave like a savvy service professional who knows how to treat customers of every race, creed, color, or orientation.

Like Jeffrey Zeigler, a white man who—when young, black Brennan Walker knocks on his door after getting lost—picks up his shotgun and, rather than helping the child find his way, attempts to kill him.

Like the two white Sacramento cops who, rather than using their training to accurately assess a situation and manage their fear before responding with deadly force, follow Stephon Clark, a black man, into his grandmother’s backyard and shoot him 20 times before ascertaining it’s a cellphone in his hand.

The list goes on. We know it well. It’s daily news fodder. Why?

Remember the equation above? Fear metastasizes with the lack of empathy. We can’t care about what we don’t know or refuse to learn. We can’t comprehend what we haven’t taken time to understand. We can’t respect what we’ve deemed less than. We can’t treat with care and concern what we’ve chosen to believe is dangerous. We can’t empathize when we don’t have the first clue of what life is like for a person of color. And so white people continue to believe black people are a threat, a danger to them, and from there, fear reigns and racist acts persist.

Of course I am speaking in generalities. Not all white people. Not all cops, not all people answering doors; not all coffee baristas.

But when there is enough evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, to educate and convince us of our commonalities as members of the human race, any white person continuing to blame “fear” for their reactive behavior is abdicating responsibility for their part in perpetuating racism. Fear offered as an excuse is exactly that: an excuse. It is not a solution. Empathy is. Empathy is the solution to fear.

It’s likely every person has had the experience of having their perceptions, opinions, and feelings about something or someone change after they’ve had more interaction or spent more time with that person or thing. Empathy is engendered when we make those connections, get past ingrained beliefs and knee-jerk responses, to learn something new and create points of commonality and kinship with those we’ve feared.

If you asked any white person who (consciously or unconsciously) fears blacks how much time—with depth, regularity, and emotional intimacy—they’ve spent with black people, odds are good you’d find a deficit. In communities with little diversity, which is much of rural and suburban America, those deficits run deep. So how do you induce greater empathy when the opportunity to connect isn’t easily there? Or in more diverse communities where it’s too easily avoided?

It has to become a priority. Schools, churches, town and city leaders have to make it so. There has to be intention and respondent actions that welcome black families into schools. Hire black teachers and bank tellers. Attract and encourage black-run businesses. Organize diversity seminars, bring in sensitivity trainers, engage speakers and mentors who work in the field, people of the very races and ethnicities most feared. Where it isn’t endemic or immediate, circumstances have to be created in which racial empathy can be explored and engaged, where hate and fear can be disassembled, and new ideas formed.

With connection, empathy grows. We learn more about the lives and rich cultural heritage of people we feared. We listen and gain greater understanding of how life hits them, what they have to deal with; what particular obstacles are in their paths that are not in ours. We expand our thinking to realize the world seen through our prism of white privilege is vastly different and less fraught than the world seen through theirs, and with that greater understanding, we are more capable of putting ourselves in their shoes, that most basic definition of empathy.

Once in their shoes, we should be better able to respond and react with consideration, respect, and basic human decency. Which makes sense, since science tells us—and I believe in science—that we’re all made of the same stuff.

Top photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash
Middle photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash
Third photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Whose Voice Gets To Represent Race In Our Literature?

Storytellers are the chroniclers of our life and times. They memorialize history, dissect our complex and evolving world; they entertain and provoke and captivate. They are as diverse and eclectic as the characters they create and the stories they tell. It is their job to reflect who we are, what we experience, and what we can imagine. That’s a big canvas. It’s huge. And there’s no end to the variety of colors and hues that can be drawn upon it. Just as there is no end to the variety of artists weaving the tales drawn there.

Yet some believe there are rules to who gets to use which colors, who gets to draw outside the lines to tell stories that involve characters from different cultures. Some believe issues of race can only be voiced from within limited perspectives. Who gets to decide that? Who determines the answer to the title question?

In May of this year, the BBC took it on, running a piece about successful British spy author, Anthony Horowitz, who’d been dissuaded from including a black character in one of his novels:

Author Anthony Horowitz says he was “warned off” including a black character in his new book because it was “inappropriate” for a white writer. The creator of the Alex Rider teenage spy novels says an editor told him it could be considered “patronising” … Horowitz, who has written 10 novels featuring teenage spy Alex Rider, said there was a “chain of thought” in America that it was “inappropriate” for white writers to try to create black characters, something which he described as “dangerous territory”.

I not only agreed with Anthony’s “dangerous territory” comment, I shared that opinion in my own piece, No, Authors Should Not Be Constrained By Gender Or Race In The Characters They Create (and since quoting my own work feels circular, I invite you to click over there to get my fuller perspective).

I ask this question not just because of the larger and, yes, “dangerous” implications of limiting literary voices and books, but from the very personal perspective of hitting the buzzsaw of “fear of cultural appropriation” within my own work, in trying to get my own book, a dramatic novel about police profiling within an interracial relationship, published.

While agents and publishers can find any number of reasons to reject a book (as they do regularly), particularly as the industry struggles under dramatically changing fortunes, I was surprised at the resounding lack of response I’d gotten to this new book, particularly after having published two previous novels that have done well, and with a resume that’s garnered a modicum of respect. Certainly I understand how subjective the process is — it’s been likened to the rarity and randomness of falling in love — but still, it was unusual how few even acknowledged my query. It wasn’t until I was able to get some specific responses from specific agents that the light finally went on.

It was a problem of “fear of cultural appropriation.”

I am a white author telling a story that involves black characters. This, as Anthony Horowitz was warned, is not considered “appropriate.” It’s seen as “patronizing.” Though, in following that paradigm, who, then, would be able to tell the story of an interracial relationship if neither race can write about the other? Personally, I find that to be madness, but I’ve now had agents from three different high-profile literary agencies specifically cite “appropriation” as their reasons for rejection:

1. The first felt my “whiteness is kind of a problem,” she wrote: “This is a well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current… but there may be an issue of whose voice gets to represent race.”

2. The second asserted she couldn’t take it on because of “all the concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ these days.”

3. The third felt the black male protagonist “didn’t sound black enough.” I won’t even parse that implication.

But the message was clear, at least from the point of view of these particular gatekeepers: white authors writing black characters are unmarketable. Beyond “inappropriate,” “these are brutal times in fiction and we’re not comfortable representing a book, no matter how good or worthy, in which that issue is present.”

How do we feel about that? As readers, writers, and consumers of cultural content?

I find it dangerous. I find it censuring. I find it condescending and discriminatory. I find any limitation to writers of any race to be the antithesis of art. Or, as my friend and #BLM activist, Regina McRae, put it (and I echoed above): “An author is an artist, and words are their canvas. You can’t constrain art.” She’s right.

We live in a profoundly competitive world, a landscape made all the more so by the internet and its powers of equalization. Skill, craft, and expertise, once prerequisites of success, are now often trumped by what’s viral, what’s contemporary, what excels via social media marketing. A “nobody” making YouTube videos can hit the zeitgeist of youth fascination to outpace a label artist who’s put years and millions into production. A young Turk writing snarky clickbait can be valued over a brilliant journalist covering news with depth and perspective. A self-published soft-porn novelist can outsell a Pulitzer Prize-winning wordsmith by virtue of viral hype alone. And kids with iPhones can score magazines covers while journeymen photographers close shop.

Within that world, industries impacted, like the publishing industry, pendulate wildly as they attempt to transcend and reinvent, often without clarity about what’s next or what new turn culture might take while they’re trying to survive. So I get it. I get a literary agent telling me she “doesn’t have the courage” to take on a book that might stir controversy, that might garner commensurate cowardice from the publishers she’s trying to sell it to. It’s a business; she’s gotta make a living.

But I disdain the reasons why. If a white author writes a book with black characters and it’s poorly written, with little market value, or if — given art’s subjectivity — it’s simply something she doesn’t like or doesn’t believe has merit, fine. Those are understandable reasons to reject.

But if a book with black characters written by a white author is a “well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current,” and if that book — presented with fully-fleshed characters, with depth, sensitivity, and authentic reflections of all ethnicities involve — is rejected simply because it might trigger discomfort about “cultural appropriation,” what is the underlying message?

Literary discrimination. Artistic cowardice. Market segregation.

If we can only write within our cultures, our demographics, that means, if interpreted fairly, science fiction writers can’t write about aliens, men can’t write about women; women about men. Straight writers can’t include LGBT characters and vice versa. Catholics can’t write about non-Catholics, Democrats about Republicans; Jews and Muslims about people who are not of their faith. Young people can’t write about old people (though the reverse might be acceptable since old people used to be young people). And since white writers can’t include black characters, or any characters that aren’t white, we’d have to presume the commensurate would be expected of black writers, Asian writers, Hispanic writers, etc.

Silly, isn’t it? Maybe even terrifying.

Is that really what we want from our artistic gatekeepers? Fear of controversy? Cultural timidity? The negation of an entire demographic of voices who dare to include diversity outside their own? Have we really come to a time of such hair-trigger sensitivity that we require our storytellers to limit their imaginations to only the race, creed and color they are?

Tell that to Harper Lee.

Now, believe me, I’m not comparing myself to Harper Lee, but I am saying every book must be judged on the merit of the work; every author, on the quality of their skill and presentation. And if an author is telling a multicultural story, one that involves diverse characters, their only obligation is to tell that story well, with authenticity and truth.

Given my own focus and activism on issues of race in America, its conflicts and conversations (see “related articles” below), I believe I have done that; I’ve heeded that mandate. I also think I’ve written a pretty damn good story. But if I can’t find anyone in the traditional publishing world courageous enough to take it on, to transcend their fears of “cultural appropriation,” I’ll once again leap on my own and hopefully find an interested, openminded audience.

It is our job to tell our stories. It is our right to create the worlds and characters and tales we imagine. We are not limited by corporate timidity. And we are not afraid of who reads them.

I’m interested to hear what other writers, agents, publishers, readers at large think about or have encountered on this issue. It’s one that seems to be growing and needs, I believe, some serious thought and discussion. Feel free to share your thoughts in comments, on Facebook, or get in touch via my website. And if you’re curious about my book in question, click HERE.

Related articles:

Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

Talking With Regina McRae About #BLM and What Else Matters in the Politics of Race

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Say what you will about social media and the tendency of some to either trivialize or troll it on a far-too-constant basis, the platform has provided a vibrant, interactive forum through which to meet people we might not have otherwise. And sometimes that’s a very good thing.

I met Regina McRae via social media, from far across the country, and from very different avenues of life. And her contribution to my perspective, my greater understanding of what it is to be a black person in America in the year 2015, has been one of those very good things. It’s “schooled” me, in ways that have broadened my view of race and the impact of its politics on both black and white America. 

If you read my three-part Huffington Post series of interviews with Regina, this post will not be news. But for those who have not yet caught up with the discussion, or who’d like to read and share it as a compiled piece, I’m posting it here as well.

Because I believe it’s an essential conversation, one desperately needed in our cultural effort to understand why #BlackLivesMatter, why riots happened in Ferguson and elsewhere, and how activists are inspiring people of every race to raise a ruckus—and our consciousness—in hopes of creating true change. I hope you’ll read all three segments; share them, comment on them, pose your own questions…I promise one or both of us will respond!

Regina gave me the respect of her candor, her unvarnished perspective, and I not only appreciated both, but am grateful for the education they offered. I hope you’ll find her words illuminating as well. 


REGINA AND I TAKE IT ON, PART 1: TWO WOMEN — ONE BLACK, ONE WHITE — DISCUSS RACIAL POLITICS, ‘GOOD WHITE PEOPLE,’ AND #BLACKLIVESMATTER   

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I’ve never met Regina McRae. We’ve spoken on the phone, exchanged emails, connected on social media, but we’ve never actually met… which means we have a typical friendship in this 2.0 world! We originally crossed paths when she came upon a piece of mine, No, White People Will Never Understand the Black Experience, which led to our connecting on Facebook, and, from there, regular interaction on various topics posted.

Given her background as a black woman from Brooklyn who built her own bakery, Grandma’s Secrets (notable for being New York’s only dessert delivery company), as well as authored the book, Taking The Cake, The Ultimate Cake Guide, her posts were a feisty mix of culinary insight, humorous cultural commentary, and some very unbuffered perspective on issues of race. I liked what she brought to the conversation, and was paying attention when one post in particular grabbed me.

Since last year’s infamous debacle in Ferguson, MO, the specific issue of #BlackLivesMatter has been a conflicted one for many… including me. Despite being an open-minded, politically progressive person fortunate to have been raised on the principle that “all people are created equal,” I found myself thrown when the hashtag made its cultural entrance. My initial response was a familiar one: “Of course, black lives matter; all lives matter.” I wasn’t clear why we were being asked to differentiate, to specify, as if other categories of lives didn’t warrant the same emphasis. I didn’t object to the hashtag, but I didn’t know how to rationalize the selectiveness.

Then Regina posted something on Facebook, a response directed at someone who was obviously having a similar struggle, and, included in a longer message, was this line:

“We know all lives matter, but our country obviously doesn’t! The fact that we have to put up such an obvious sign and hashtag, there’s the problem right there.”

Simple, direct, but right to the irony of the issue, underscoring the “ideal vs. fact” element of the debate. It struck a chord. It also triggered some thoughts on a parallel that resonated with me:

If I, as a woman fighting for women’s causes, were to say to someone, “Women’s lives matter” and their response was, “Yeah, sure, but all lives matter,” I would immediately feel dismissed and diminished, as if my cause, my fight as a marginalized group, was being minimized. For whatever reason, that helped me understand why embracing the #BLM hashtag mattered. I had to get in touch with Regina…

Click HERE to continue reading….


REGINA AND I TAKE IT ON, PART 2: PROFILING, POLICE BRUTALITY, AND THE POLITICS OF #BLM

….LDW: Great change generally takes more than a gentle touch; history has taught us that. So, yes, in this presidential cycle, candidates will be obligated to address the topic of race politics and brutality. It’s good to hear that Hillary Clinton has agreed to meet with #BLM activist, DeRay McKesson, but is there a danger of making politicians’ response to #BLM a superficial litmus test?

Meaning, we know there are several conventionally accepted “tests” for candidates on both sides of the political aisle. There have been hissy fits when candidates were found not wearing an American flag lapel pin (I remember Obama getting grief for that at some point), or demands that candidates publicly declare a belief in God. Personally, I think items of that nature should be off the table of discussion, particularly given how transparent compliance can become.

So do the demands of #BLM activists—for candidates to declare support for the movement—risk becoming another one of those manipulated litmus tests? Candidates make a big show of their support, their “long history of working for racial justice,” etc., but if the rhetoric comes only after a #BLM disruption, how authentic is it?

RM: I believe people’s records will speak for themselves. We know who has been a staunch supporter and who hasn’t. If a candidate professes support for the movement, I’d ask, what side of history were you on during the marriage equality debate? What is your stance on immigration? Do you support free college tuition? Did you support the Violence Against Women Act, even as it contained a provision to protect Native American woman and transgender women from domestic violence?

When you saw laws being passed that peeled back voters’ rights or immigrants’ rights, laws that made filming cops a felony, or Stand Your Ground laws, did you ask yourself: who writes these, who passes them, and what can I do to correct them? Do you recognize that hate groups are a cancer destroying this nation from the inside out, and when you stand up for black lives, you are actually helping to excise that cancer, saving all lives?

If a candidate pledges phony support, they’ll only fool themselves. When they show that all lives matter to them by their actions, not just their words, then we will authentically believe that black lives matter to them too.

Click HERE to read full interview…


REGINA AND I TAKE IT ON, PART 3: VIOLENCE ACROSS COMMUNITIES, MEDIA COMPLICITY, AND FINDING COMMON GROUND

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…Before we continue, a quick comment about the photos used to accompany the series: Those of Regina are obvious, but I wanted to point out why I intentionally selected the two-shots I did.

I wanted to depict Regina and me as the women we are: our races, our professions, our everydayness; our similarities and our differences. It felt important to illustrate how individuals who live on opposite sides of the country, with different backgrounds and career paths, and certainly disparate ethnic and cultural influences, could come together with interest and compassion to discuss “that which ails us.” A message, perhaps, that it can be done, it should be done, as often as people can come together.

Now let’s get on to our final segment:

LDW: First of all, Regina, thanks again for working with me on this. Simply put, it’s been a good thing.

RM: Thank you for giving me a voice. When I see trolls on the #BLM page and am sickened by the extreme hate, I know how important this conversation is. We have to all move past this.

LDW: Agreed. So let’s continue. Here’s something I’d like your perspective on: Despite our country’s mandate against segregation, it’s a fact that many communities gravitate toward neighborhoods and enclaves made up largely of their own ethnic or racial groups. Particularly in cities, we see whole sections defined by their largest populations. Busing students may diversify schools, but even then real connection becomes problematic when kids can’t spend time with each other because their homes are so far apart. Many small towns offer little or no diversity; consequently, people have few opportunities to engage and interact with other races.

How can we, then, best promote empathy for the many reasons behind the #BlackLivesMatter campaign when too many whites in America still do not have meaningful experiences with blacks; still do not fully grasp the history and legacy that’s led to this point in our culture, and still see only what they get on the news, which is largely negative? What, in your opinion, would best promote greater empathy and understanding amongst communities, on all sides of the racial divide, so that mistrust and knee-jerk stereotypes are not the go-to response?

RM: In this day and age of the Internet and social media, the world is a much smaller place than it has ever been. If someone is truly interested in bridging a gap, it’s as easy as making a friend on Facebook or Instagram. Want to learn more about slavery, segregation, Jim Crow? Just Google it. The only reason for ignorance these days is comfort. As with yourself, those who truly wish to know, reach out and ask! A person who asks a question is only a fool for a moment. Those who never ask are fools forever.

LDW: That’s a good line.

RM: It’s true! You don’t have to know a single black person to understand the #BLM movement. Read the Department of Justice’s scathing reports on corruption and racism in the Cleveland police department, or the Ferguson police department, as mentioned last week. Read Amnesty International’s report on the use of lethal force in New York City’s police department, in which they were compared to the secret police in a Third World dictatorship…and that was just 20 years ago under Mayor Giuliani!

Things have not gotten worse over the years, they’ve become more evident with the proliferation of cellphones, iPads, and security cameras. The world is coming to know what we have always known: that some in law enforcement are protecting and serving only themselves. And because this cancer has not been excised, but been allowed to grow unchecked and untreated, it is now spreading from the inner city into the ‘burbs…

Click HERE to read full interview…


As I concluded in the final piece, I hope everyone will take the time to read all three segments to get the full arc and balance of what we’ve discussed. I also hope everyone who has taken that time will let the ideas, the concepts, the calls-to-action, seep into their consciousness and propel them forward toward a new way of looking at things. We can keep dismissing and denying, keep trying to frame the conversation in cliches and tropes that avoid painful realities, and our witting, or unwitting, complicity in a society that marginalizes some of its members, but to do so would only perpetuate a system that has fractured and hurt far too many.

We can’t wait any longer. The time is now. We can’t pretend we’re “post-racial,” or rest comfortably in the assuagement that “things have gotten better.” We have to take this moment of awareness and unrest and do something substantial. Lives depend on it. Yes, all lives. Because all lives matter. But to create a society in which that is truly fact, not just an ideal defined by lofty thinkers, we must be willing to state, unequivocally, and with comprehension for the reasons why, that #BlackLivesMatter. From there, we move forward together.

Regina_tagIf you’d like to get in touch with Regina McRae, you can do so via her Facebook page, at Twitter, or her bakery, Grandma’s Secrets.

Photos by permission of Regina McRae.

 

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.