A 'New Mind' For A Region: What It Means To Be A 'Southerner'

The New Mind Of The South

by Tracy Thompson

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The American South as a region has been defined by change since the Civil War. Twenty years after she left the South, Georgia native Tracy Thompson went on a four-year journey to explore what it means to be Southern in the 21st century. In The New Mind of the South, she shares her discoveries.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Neal Conan is away. The American South as a region has been defined by change since the Civil War and some say that change has also caused the deterioration of a strong regional identity. Our guest today has spent four years trying to figure out what it means to be a Southerner in the 21st century.

At the heart of it, she says, is understanding the conflict between a deep love for all that's good about the South coupled with a nagging guilt about the past, a guilt that often goes unspoken. So we want to hear from you. Do you call yourself a Southerner? Do you identify yourself as a Southerner? And if so, what does it mean to you? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org.

You can also join the conversation by going to the website npr.org and just clicking on TALK OF THE NATION. Later on in the program, Google goes climbing. But first, the identity of a changing region, ever-changing region, I guess we could say. Tracy Thompson is a reporter and an essayist. Her new book is called "The New Mind of the South" and she joins us in Studio 3A. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Tracy.

TRACY THOMPSON: Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: There have been so many books written about the so-called Southern identity. There have been people who have made their entire careers talking about this. What made you feel like there was a need for this book - for your book?

THOMPSON: Well, I think that most of my life I've been kind of confused about what I meant when I said I was a Southerner and it took me a long time to realize that basically what I was dealing with was the history I had absorbed growing up, which was a pretty close-to-the-bone version of the lost cause myth, you know, that the South had fought to defend states' rights, etc, etc.

And the fact that I grew up in Atlanta in the '60s and I saw the civil rights movement playing out first hand. I was much too young to have participated in it but I could see it happening around me. And there was just a fundamental conflict there. I mean, if slavery had been this benign institution, what were all these black people upset about? I mean, that's pretty much the way my thinking was when I was eight or nine years old.

HEADLEE: And you made a discovery about your own family history that then impelled you to go on this search for Southern identity also. I mean, you have a different history than you thought.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I did. And that came many decades later. A cousin of mine was doing some research on the Thompson family history and he turned up some documents at the National Archives that said that we had a mutual ancestor who had been a unionist during the war. Which...

HEADLEE: In Atlanta.

THOMPSON: In Atlanta. That's the unusual part. There were lots of Southerners who were unionists but not that many in the Deep South. And he was not only a unionist, he had refused to fight for the Confederacy and had spent most of the war trying to avoid being conscripted and giving aid to other unionists. And eventually he had to leave the state because his life was threatened.

HEADLEE: Although he still has land there and his wife and...

THOMPSON: Well, he was a tenant farmer so, no, he didn't really have land but he definitely lost his crops that year when Sherman came through.

HEADLEE: Oh, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Before we go further with our discussion, though, let's kind of define what we're talking about here when we say the South. You say, and let me quote here, you say it's where there's sugar in the tea and not in the cornbread. But geographically speaking, what's in the South?

THOMPSON: Well, any definition of the South is going to be idiosyncratic because there's no - there isn't any good definition of the South. I started with the 11 states of the old Confederacy. So Maryland gets off the hook and so does Missouri and Kentucky. And then at that point I sort of started whittling it down and I used as a rough guideline my friend Joel Garreau's book "The Nine Nations of North America." I kind of lopped off everything but east Texas and I kind of stopped halfway down Florida because southern Florida is not Southern.

HEADLEE: The south of Orlando is no longer the South.

THOMPSON: Right. Right. And I excluded some of the close in suburbs in northern Virginia which...

HEADLEE: The ones that are close to D.C.

THOMPSON: Right. The ones that are close, like Fairfax County in Maryland.

HEADLEE: Right.

THOMPSON: And then, you know, the Eastern Shore, for instance, would be considered the South, although it's not contiguous with any of the rest of this stuff. So it was a very idiosyncratic definition but I figured, you know, my definition is as good as anybody else's.

HEADLEE: So let's talk about, well, you call it in your book the mismatch of history and identity. What does that mean?

THOMPSON: Well, it's sort of what I was talking about before. There is a certain kind of cognitive dissonance that you have when you grow up in the South as a white Southerner and you are kind of aware of the fact that there is a certain version of history that you get and that this history, A, does not comport with the version of history of lots of other people. B, you get the distinct sense that certain parts of the story have been left out.

And, C, there's also this huge emotional attachment to this history which I very much felt growing up. And yet I can remember going to see the 25th anniversary of the original premier of "Gone with the Wind," which was in, I guess, 1967 or something like that. And I remember thinking, you know what? I really want to believe this. This is such a beautiful story and I love those dresses. And I was in love with Clark Gable and the rest of it. But even then I had the sense that, you know, it didn't probably - it probably did not happen quite that way and yet the meta message was very much there, that something really important had happened in my part of the world and it had happened to my people.

HEADLEE: Let's be very clear here, what you're talking about. You're talking about the difference between the causes of the Civil War. And you in your book come down firmly on the side of pretty much the academic consensus which is that slavery was the number one cause...

THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: ...the reason why the South was ready to go to the Civil War.

THOMPSON: Right.

HEADLEE: People are very careful about saying that because it raises hackles still in Southern states. It has been more than 100 years since the Civil War. Why - I mean people get in fights.

THOMPSON: Yes, they will. Yeah, they will.

HEADLEE: Over this. Why is that?

THOMPSON: I think a great deal of it - partly, it has to do with a certain regional defensiveness, which I totally understand. I get really mad when I hear people stereotyping the South or stereotyping Southerners. But another part of it is that the lost cause myth was the result of an extremely energetic and highly effective public relations campaign.

Before the Civil War, the leaders of the Confederacy were absolutely clear about what they were fighting for and what was at stake. After the war, and...

HEADLEE: Almost immediately.

THOMPSON: Almost immediately after the war they began to change their story and to say - and probably this was out of a very human desire to make the awful sacrifice worth something. You know?

HEADLEE: Yeah.

THOMPSON: And the South had borne much more of the brunt of the Civil War than the North had. And so they said this was a noble principle that we were fighting for. And then there were these groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans which, starting around the turn of the century, made sure that this was the version of history that was put in school textbooks.

It was the version of history taught at Southern universities. And they were vigilant about making sure that this was the version taught to generations of Southern school children.

HEADLEE: And they were amazingly successful. Again, for listeners out there, we wonder if you refer to yourself or think of yourself as a Southerner. And we want to know what that means to you. The number is 800-989-8255. We have a call here from Samantha in Cookeville, Tennessee. So you are geographically in the South, Samantha. Do you call yourself a Southerner?

SAMANTHA: Yes, ma'am. Very much so.

HEADLEE: And what does that mean to you when you say that?

SAMANTHA: The biggest to me being Southern is family. And I've noticed a big difference between myself and people that I know from other parts of the country. That to us family is everything. Every funeral, every wedding is an excuse for a family reunion.

HEADLEE: This is something - thank you. That's a really good point. That's Samantha in Cookeville, Tennessee, proud Southerner there. This is something you talk about a lot in your book, Tracy, is this idea of - I think you say family, food, and faith, right, the pillars of values.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I think the southern - Southerners have a sense of community that is - has its roots in agrarian society and that you can find in some sense in agrarian societies anywhere. In the South, this kind of community sense was bonded together and annealed kind of by historical forces that include slavery itself, the need for communities to stick together when they're being oppressed - and we're talking about the black communities during the years of Jim Crow.

It was solidified by the need of white Southerners for many years to concur in a kind of cultural myth of white superiority. It was also set in stone by the pervasiveness of the certain kind of evangelical Protestant religion which absolutely saturated the South. I never met a Catholic person until I was in college.

HEADLEE: Wow. Here's - we have this call here from Joshua in Wise, Virginia. And, Joshua, let me ask you the question. Do you refer to yourself as a Southerner? Joshua?

JOSHUA: Hi. Yeah. Yeah.

HEADLEE: OK. And when you say I'm a Southerner what does that mean for you?

JOSHUA: Excuse me. It's just about the way that I was raised. I identify myself as a Southerner just based on the way that I was raised, you know, on a farm growing vegetables. Putting up tobacco during the summer, putting up hay during the summer and, you know, living off our land and literally selling our hay to make ends meet. That's how I identify myself as a Southerner.

HEADLEE: Well, this is a good point. Thank you very much. That's Joshua in Wise, Virginia. And this is what you're talking about, this agrarian society, Tracy, that leads to a certain set of values.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And the difference is that the South was an agrarian region until really pretty recently in historical terms. I mean, I was born in 1955 and I think the tip-over from when most Southerners lived in rural versus urban/suburban neighborhoods came, like, right around the early 1950's. And that's, you know, so very different from so much of the rest of the country, certainly very different from the Northeast and New England.

HEADLEE: Although we're going to talk a little bit about how it's not different from many of the immigrants that have been coming into the South. We'll do that in just a minute. Because you say there's - number one, obviously, the demographics of the South are changing and it turns out there's more similarities than differences. We're talking with Tracy Thompson, author of the book "The New Mind of the South." If you identify yourself as a Southerner, we want to know what that means for you.

The number is 800-989-8255. You can send us an email also. It's talk@npr.org. We'll be back after a short break. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Our guest, Tracy Thompson, is author of the book "The New Mind of the South." And she's traveled extensively throughout the region. She learned about an inconsistency in her own family's confederate history. One relative was actually an ardent Union sympathizer.

So she took to the road in that region and she found some Southern stories that repeatedly challenge the stereotypes and assumptions about the South, from the giant global retailer Wal-Mart's Arkansas roots to Elvis, as she describes as a Jesus-loving mama's boy from Mississippi who came up with the radical idea of singing black music to white people with pelvic gyrations too lewd to be broadcast on TV.

So if you describe yourself as a Southerner, we want to hear your story. What does it mean to you? Give us a call at 800-989-8255 or just email us at talk@npr.org. Don't forget you can find us on Twitter as well. It's @totn. So, Tracy, let's get to this idea that we mentioned earlier. Immigration, obviously, is disproportionately hitting a lot of the southern states.

They have a number of people coming very much from Mexico, especially. And I was interested to read that in one place in North Carolina a group of officials from the city, I guess, or people from there went down to travel to Mexico to visit the place where many of their immigrants came from. And they discovered what?

THOMPSON: They discovered - I was talking to the police chief in Asheboro, North Carolina, a guy named Ralph Norton. And he was telling me about a trip that he had made to central Mexico, which is where most of the Mexican immigrants that have settled in that part of North Carolina come from. And it's classic chain migration. You know, one person comes up. They send for mama and three or four cousins and so on.

And he said he was struck by the similarities between what he was seeing in central Mexico and what he knew growing up in North Carolina as a boy. He said it was a rural area. It was an area of small farms. People grew their own vegetables in a little plot out back. He said even the geography looked an awful lot like North Carolina.

And the people were very similar. If you, you know, if you overlook obvious differences like language.

HEADLEE: Like language, yeah.

THOMPSON: They were socially conservative. They were small farmers. They believed very strongly in extended family networks and, you know, sticking to family. And they were churchgoing people.

HEADLEE: Which might help explain why there are so many people from south of the border moving into the South and staying.

THOMPSON: They find the South a very congenial environment and not that different from home.

HEADLEE: Let's take a call here. This is Edward in Tallahassee, Florida. Edward, first of all, do you refer to yourself as a Southerner?

EDWARD: I do refer to myself as a Southerner and I'm an African-American.

HEADLEE: And what does it mean to you? When you say I'm Southern, what does that mean?

EDWARD: Well, it's consistent with all the comments that have been made about family and church and being very conservative. But African-Americans in the South have had to exist in a sort of dual consciousness, knowing how to navigate society from the remnants that were left behind by Jim Crow.

HEADLEE: Mm-hmm.

EDWARD: So - and I did have relatives in Miami. And when I would travel to Miami, of course, that's a lot different. That's not really the South. But going from Miami back to Quincy, Florida where I was born, it was very rural, it's very Southern, and there's norms that are consistent with having safety in regards to being a black male, particularly in the South, even up until the mid-80's.

So that's why, you know, I consider myself a Southerner. I am a Southerner, born and raised in the South. But at the same time I think African-Americans have a slightly different take on it because, again, we, because of the Civil War, might not have been looked upon very favorably for a long time following the Civil War. So we had to learn how to navigate society, you know, based on those realities. You know?

HEADLEE: I absolutely do. Thank you very much. That's Edward calling from Tallahassee, Florida. And our question is whether or not you call yourself a Southerner and why. The number is 800-989-8255. This idea of what's Southern and what isn't, in your book you point out that in 2008, Virginia and North Carolina went for Barack Obama.

THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: And there were a bunch of analysts and pundits who said, well, those states don't count. They're not part of the South anymore.

THOMPSON: Right.

HEADLEE: You disagree. Why?

THOMPSON: I do disagree. They are part of the South. They're just doing what Southerners do, which is morphing into something different. And the other thing - and this kind of ties back to what the caller just said - there is a tendency, a really pronounced tendency by commentators outside the South to sort of think of Southern - or to assume that Southern means white. And that has not been - that's not true. It has never been true.

Certainly Southerners themselves tried to make that distinction at one point in our history. But I think the latest sociological data, poll stuff that I've seen, shows that black people in the South are actually slightly more likely than white people in the South to call themselves Southerners.

HEADLEE: Huh.

THOMPSON: And there's a very distinct Southern sense of self-identity. And, you know, you see stuff on - oh, I was watching "Say Yes to the Dress." You know, that wedding show.

HEADLEE: Yeah, the wedding dress sow.

THOMPSON: And there was a black girl on there who was shopping for a wedding dress and she says - they said describe yourself. She says, well, I'm a Southern girl. And it was just utterly - nobody even remarked on it. And that is a fact of life and yet it's interesting to me that so many people don't get it.

HEADLEE: Let's read an email here. This is Shawn who says nowadays it means living for the next Southeastern Conference football game. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: We're in the middle of basketball season here, Shawn. Get your seasons right. And this may be the same Ed from Tallahassee, Florida that we spoke to before, but he says the closest thing I can relate to being a Southerner in relation to the rest of the nation is one that I do not feel I'm totally, completely assimilated as an American. The fact that this topic is being discussed on this show demonstrates the somewhat detached nature the South feels from the rest of the nation.

And Tracy, this is actually something you address in your book. And I wanted to ask you about it because you say the South could move forward by learning from other places which are part but - a part of something but still separate, i.e, the Scotts in the U.K., the Scottish, the Quebecois in Canada, the Kurds in Iraq. Explain what you mean by that.

THOMPSON: Well, I think Southerners are Americans who have had to think more about what it means to be an American than any other Americans. My ancestor, for example, he was caught between two opposing forces and his definition of what an American was, was a person who put national unity over regional loyalty. And that was a question that everyone in his time and place had to confront in one way or another.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

THOMPSON: That is not true of people who grew up in the Midwest or people who grew up in New England or anywhere else. And I just think that that's...

HEADLEE: Maybe Puerto Rico.

THOMPSON: Yeah, that is true. That is true. I'm sure there's exceptions out there that I'm not thinking of, but I just think that it's true for Southerners in a way that is really unique to them.

HEADLEE: This is Logan calling in from Nashville, Tennessee. Logan, do you refer to yourself as a Southerner?

LOGAN: I absolutely do. I was telling your call screener there that my grandfather's great-something grandfather-the amount of degrees is debated-was actually Jefferson Davis. He was the only president in the Confederacy.

HEADLEE: Right.

LOGAN: So I was actually raised, not like seriously regionally Southern, but I was raised in a family that has a history, a history that is in the history books.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

LOGAN: It's hard to connect to that and in a sense to be proud of it, but at the same time not to whitewash it. And you were talking about history and we can learn from our history. And the south has this particular passion for history. You were saying at the beginning of the segment we have been attached with the history but it's like you have to toe the party line on that history. We have whitewashed it and that's not going to help us move forward.

Unless we know where we came from, unless we know what we really did, both great and awful, how are we going to keep doing great things? How can we do more great things if we're basing our identity and building who we are as Southerners off of a version of history that is, quite frankly, a lie in many ways. Then we lose our identity.

HEADLEE: Here, again, I want to be clear here, Logan. You're again referring to the cause of the Civil War, that it was, in fact, slavery...

LOGAN: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...and not the states' rights.

LOGAN: Right. And, I mean, there's obviously been a lot of debate about it being caused by terrorists. There were economic reasons, like, export because the thing (unintelligible) Harbor was the biggest port in the South, biggest port in the nation at the time. But there were a lot of economic in terms as well, but slavery was obviously a massive issue and it was a massive cultural issue. And you see the way that affected the South.

I mean, the Civil Rights Movement was happening a century later in the same place.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

LOGAN: Driven by a lot of the same hatred and the same ignorance. So we essentially came back around.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

LOGAN: We didn't learn from it the first time. We covered it up. And we did horrible things again.

HEADLEE: OK. That's Logan calling from Nashville, Tennessee. We also have a call here from August in Franklin, Tennessee. Lots of people calling in from Tennessee. August, do you refer to yourself as a Southerner?

AUGUST: Absolutely. With pride.

HEADLEE: And what does that mean for you?

AUGUST: Well, I had the benefit of being born and raised true Southern, all of the things that we cherish - you know, family and food for a funeral, a neighbor to lend a hand, the graciousness of the South. But at 19 I moved to New York City for six years, and then I moved straight from there to Los Angeles for 20.

HEADLEE: Oh, boy.

AUGUST: And I moved back to the South when I had my son, because in spite of the incredible and rich life I have had by being exposed to such diversity, I still wanted to raise my boy here. I wanted him to have the manners and the lovely - we have acres. We have animals. We have country living. But he has parents that have been to a New Age church in California, even though we call ourselves Christians here in Tennessee.

(LAUGHTER)

AUGUST: It's a funny mix. But I also love being able to challenge the stereotype that I still encounter when people, you know, whisper that somebody married a black man. You know, it's still here. And I feel really blessed to be here, but, you know, we find other people that are also willing to challenge the stereotype and - but also struggle with the pride and guilt of being a Southerner, and can, you know, relish the good things and challenge the bad things.

HEADLEE: OK. That's interesting. That's August calling from Franklin, Tennessee. What do you think, Tracy, about this idea of Southern guilt?

THOMPSON: Well, I have been accused of pandering to liberal - white liberal guilt, and I want to plead not guilty to that. I think - one of the previous callers said something about the need to simply come to terms with history, and that is what I think the obligation of Southerners is. It's an obligation and a privilege, because we have so much history to come to terms with.

But I don't feel any particular personal guilt for slavery, or Jim Crow or whatever. I do, however, think that it is absolutely incumbent on me, as a Southerner and as a product of that region, to talk about that history as it was...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...and to talk about it in terms of its effect on the present, because we are all products of our history, whether we realize it or not.

HEADLEE: All right. We have a call here from Amy(ph), and Salt Lake City is definitely not in the South. Amy, do you refer to yourself as a Southerner?

AMY: You know, I do, because I grew up in the South, but they don't - sometimes don't think I'm a Southerner because my parents are not from the South. So - but my ancestry goes way back to Tennessee, and we just happened to find our way back in to Tennessee. And one of my great-great-great-grandfathers, unfortunately, was a slaveholder...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

AMY: ...on one side. But I just - one of the things that makes us a Southerner, I was - so I've lived in Salt Lake for 20 years. Well, not in Salt Lake, but I've lived in Utah for 20 years. And about an hour ago, I was having lunch, and I was asked if I would like a drink, and I said, yes, please. And he said, you must be from the South. And I said (technical difficulty) from the South? He said, only Southerners have good manners.

HEADLEE: Oh, that is not true.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: That is not - I protest.

AMY: And I said, do you think that we don't have good manners in Utah? And he said, you know, it's not the same thing. Southerners have good manners. And I thought it was very - really funny that he immediately knew I was from the South, because of my good manners, because I don't feel like I have a thick accent, but I thought that was really funny.

HEADLEE: You don't.

AMY: And it is true that, as Southerners, we have good manners. We talk to people. We look at each other in the eye. When I came to college, outside of the South, that was one of the hard things for me as people are not personable, and they don't look at each other in the eyes. And when you walk past somebody, you don't say, hey. Southerners have good manners.

HEADLEE: All right. That's Amy calling from Salt Lake City, Utah. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Although - I mean, I should say I have good manners, but my grandparents on one side is from Arkansas and on the other side, they're from Texas. So maybe that was a familial thing instead. But, Tracy, what she's talking about, that sort of manners, still...

THOMPSON: There's an element of truth to it, and, you know, it's funny because to some people, Southern good manners comes across as being phony. But I can tell a story about one time when I was - this was in the mid 80s. I ran out of gas in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I was driving my daddy's Volvo, and it didn't have a working gas gauge.

So I coasted to the curb, and I went up to the door, where an elderly lady greeted me. I told her my problem. She invited me in. She called a neighbor, who came over with a gas can and primed my carburetor.

HEADLEE: Huh.

THOMPSON: While I'm waiting, I have a glass of iced tea, and I thank them both, and I go on my way. Yeah. Of course. And about two weeks later, I happen to be in New Haven, Connecticut in the middle of a snowstorm. And I was driving my own car, and it had a dying battery, and it wouldn't start in the middle of a grocery store parking lot.

I had jumper cables with me. And I knocked on the window of the lady in the car next to me, and I said, I'm sorry, can I please use your car to jump-start my car? And she says, what's the matter? Don't you have AAA?

HEADLEE: All right. We have an email here from Cathy(ph), who says: When you were a child and someone asked you where the Yankee shot you, if you showed them your bellybutton, you're a Southerner.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Here's Edith(ph), who says: I'm absolutely a Southerner. I love wearing flip-flops in January. I love cooking with bacon and in bacon fat. I love it all. However, I'm not your typical Southerner. I'm Latina. My family's been in the South - Texas - since the '80s. More specifically, I'm Afro-Latina, so I've had to navigate between three groups - blacks, white and Latinos - all my life. That's interesting because, even today, there are parts of the South who don't understand who someone - how someone who looks like me can speak Spanish and live south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

But this is something you address, that in the end, immigration could fundamentally change the South.

THOMPSON: Yeah.

HEADLEE: Positively or negatively?

THOMPSON: I think - I hope, for the most part, positively. The Latino teenagers that I talked to in Asheboro, North Carolina and other places, were - they did not think of themselves as Southerners. They were...

HEADLEE: You asked them specifically.

THOMPSON: Yeah. They were like, what? I mean, to them they were in the North. But at the same time, you could see that there were certain influences beginning to operate. They were drinking sweet tea. They would adopt black idioms.

HEADLEE: They'd say, y'all.

THOMPSON: Yeah. They would say, y'all. They would say, I be loafin' or something like that. They would - the South was having an effect on them that they didn't even realize themselves.

HEADLEE: And they read, "Gone with the Wind."

THOMPSON: They loved "Gone with the Wind." Of course, southern literature and Latin-American literature have a long and close history. So...

HEADLEE: Yeah. It is a really interesting book. I highly recommend it. It's called, "The New Mind of the South." It's out, this month, from Simon & Schuster. The author is Tracy Thompson. She's a reporter and essayist and author of many books. This is just the most recent. She joined us here today in studio 3A. Thank you so much for being here.

THOMPSON: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.

HEADLEE: OK. Say, come back, y'all.

I love my southern accent.

THOMPSON: You sure do.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Coming up, scaling the world's most impressive peaks from your desk. Do come back. Our next guest will tell you about all about that after a short break. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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