Time To 'Redefine' Media Portrayals Of Black Women Political commentator Sophia Nelson says it feels like "open season" on successful black women. In Black Woman Redefined, Nelson takes on the stereotypes that depict black women as angry and incapable of finding a man.
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Time To 'Redefine' Media Portrayals Of Black Women

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Time To 'Redefine' Media Portrayals Of Black Women

Time To 'Redefine' Media Portrayals Of Black Women

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LYNN NEARY, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away. On the surface, it would appear that many black women have achieved their ideal version of the American dream. Independent and successful, they should be resting on their laurels.

Instead, says Sophia Nelson, accomplished black women often find themselves portrayed negatively. They're stereotyped as angry women who are difficult to work with and can't find or keep a husband.

But, says Nelson, with a beautiful, accomplished black woman serving as first lady, the time has come for black women to rewrite their own story. In her new book, "Black Woman Redefined," Nelson sets out to say why and how black women should do just that.

We'd like to hear from the African-American women in the audience. Do you face these stereotypes? And if so, how do you deal with them? Our number is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, NPR's pop culture critic Linda Holmes on what we are destined to miss in life. But first Sophia Nelson's new book is "Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths And Discovering Fulfillment In The Age Of Michelle Obama." She joins us from a studio in Arlington, Virginia. Good to have you with us.

SOPHIA NELSON: Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: So I wanted to start out by asking you: Why did you decide to write this book at this particular moment in time? You refer to it as the age of Michelle Obama, but why now?

NELSON: Well, actually it started for me years ago. It was a culmination of the things I was seeing in my own life with the women that I'm close to in my sorority, African-American women, and in the workplace. And then, you know, in 2008, along comes Mrs. Obama, candidate Obama's wife, and if you recall in the summer of 2008, she was attacked for her statements that she was proud of her country for the first time.

And then they looked into her senior thesis at Princeton and said that perhaps she had racial issues. There was even some talk that there was a tape with her at Jeremiah Wright's church saying some things that were racially insensitive.

And then if you recall, the New Yorker did a cover depicting her with an afro, with a machine gun on her back, with a flower in her hair and looking like Angela Davis, you know, about to start some type of takeover or burn some kind of building down, and she was fist-bumping her husband, who was dressed in Muslim garb.

And that is what kind of set it off for me, and I was like: Good grief. It's time that we do something about this. And it just kind of went from there. And then of course I could name many incidences that we all are familiar with, from Don Imus referring to college co-eds as nappy-headed hos and different things like that.

Fast-forward to Psychology Today just three weeks ago calling us unattractive, the most unattractive of all, in fact, more unattractive than black men.

NEARY: Well, let me go back to Michelle Obama for a moment. What exactly does Michelle Obama represent to you and to other women like yourself?

NELSON: Oh, my word. I mean, I open the book with an open letter to her, and every black woman that's read it said they cried, and they were emotional. And what she represents is a culmination of all the beautiful, fabulous, successful black women that all of us know in our everyday lives: our mothers, our aunts, our sisters, our, you know, grandmothers, the women who - like Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height and others who paid the price so that we could be the successful women we are.

But what she is is that she shows to the world - I grew up with Clair Huxtable. You know, I'm a kid of the '80s, and, you know, I grew up watching Clair Huxtable, and she was kind of the role model for my time. And she was kind of the role model for my time.

And then Michelle Obama comes along, and it's living, breathing Clair Huxtable living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She's got a husband. She's got kids. Mom lives at the house with her. You know, she's got great arms. She hangs out with her girlfriends. She has date night. She serves her country well. She loves our military. She's smart. She's Ivy League educated. I mean, she's just the aspirational buy(ph), for lack of a better way to put it, for young women, particularly of the young women coming up now in their 20s and 30s. I'm in my 40s.

NEARY: Now, in your book, you focus on college-educated professional women, for the most part.


NEARY: You refer to them as ABWs, or accomplished black women. Tell us about that group of women. Who are they? Who are these ABWs?

NELSON: There's a great - I mean, I know you guys are going to be running an excerpt on your website, but there's a - in chapter one, there's a great breakdown of exactly what that group is and what they represent.

But in summary, the reason that I chose to focus on college-educated and professional women was because that's the group that's most under attack. Morton Kondracke did a great piece back in 2007 after the Imus incident saying that it seemed to be some type of permissiveness in our culture that allowed people to attack black women, particularly the most educated and successful among us. And I would agree with that.

So we focused on that demographic. That group is, you know, about 60 percent of the college graduates in this country and black people in the black demographic are black women. More black women get advanced degrees than do their black male peers, which is of course contributed to the lopsided 70 percent of professional black women that are unmarried. In our study it was 67 percent. The Yale study is the former number.

And so you can see that number's pretty close, Lynn. It's a very close group. And so I think that for me, I was most concerned about what was happening with the best and brightest among us and why it was that we could achieve so much success, but we were really struggling - not all. There are many wonderful black women, as evidenced by Michelle Obama, who are successful, that are doing it all well.

But the great majority are really having some challenges in trying to have that balance that we all seek in our lives. So that's why I focused on that demographic.

NEARY: What kind of challenges? Maybe you can just explain what you mean for that. What kind of challenges particularly this group of women are facing?

NELSON: Yes, I think for example chapter three is important. That's the workplace chapter. And I talk about and go through while there has been a great deal of success, as you mention in your lead-in for us, we are still under-represented in the professions and in corporate America in very devastating numbers.

I mean, in many senses - there was a study done last year by University of Kansas researchers that black women are still largely invisible. Now, I know there are people who would argue with that, with Oprah and Michelle Obama how is that possible, but you have to remember, they're the exception, they're not the rule.

And so black women are still challenged. They're still the most likely to file discrimination suits at work. They're still the most likely to be recruited but not retained and advanced in any profession.

Relationally, I just mentioned the statistics are very daunting, and then we are even dealing with issues of health disparities for black women, you know, whether it's obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, you know, you name it, fibroids, et cetera. There's depression. There's financial disparities.

There was a study out last year that the average wealth for a black woman, even a college-educated black woman, was like - I think it was $100 was the average wealth, as compared to other counterparts, it was more $10,000. So it was $100 compared to $10,000.

And so you just see these disparities that still exist despite our great accomplishments. We're still challenged.

NEARY: Yeah, now do these - do some of the problems - some of the problems that you're describing, they go across class and economic lines, as well.

NELSON: Yeah, I think that's right. I think, though, that again, I focused on the college-educated group because you would think that, of course, once you achieve the American dream, right, you go to college, you're supposed to come out and get a job.

Now, I know that it's hard times for everybody in this economy, and it has been for the last couple years. So whether you're a white female, black female, white male, black male, you're having a tough time. But we do know when we look at the unemployment numbers right now and some of the disparities, they hit the black community disproportionately hard.

For example, the unemployment rate is nine percent. For blacks, it's 16, almost 17 percent. And in some areas, it's as high as 25, 30 percent, Great Depression levels.

NEARY: We are talking with Sophia Nelson about her book, "Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths And Discovering Fulfillment In The Age Of Michelle Obama." If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 800-989-8255. We're going to take a call from Cindy(ph), who is calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Cindy, welcome to the program.

CINDY: Thank you, thank you very much. I would just like to say that as a 50-year-old black female who has a bachelor of science in mathematics and also having worked in corporate America as a white-collar worker over the last almost 30 years, I've experienced what appears to be a lower standard of treatment for African-American women within corporate America.

However, the standards for job assessment and for completion of the work are higher. By lower standard of treatment, I mean that whenever I go to my superiors with either an idea or with a question, I am spoken to, on the average, in a more condescending manner than my white counterparts. And when I have gone to them with an idea that was a great idea that even was used at some point later, I never was given the credit for that idea.

I think that there is a whole different playing field for African-American women. And I would also like to say that as a diversity person, a council member that has attended or been a member of diversity training within corporate America for at least seven years, I also experienced one of my tier two or tier three Caucasian women who are highly respected and highly esteemed, she actually came out and said, within one of our meetings, that she does not like to work with African-American women because they are so sensitive and apt to cry. And I...

NEARY: All right, let me see if I can get Sophia to respond. Thanks so much for your call, Cindy, and I'd like to - I think that Cindy is describing some of what you, Sophia, are zeroing in on in this book, in terms of the experience that some women have in the workplace.

NELSON: Yes, I think that there's no doubt about it. What she says has happened to all of us. I've certainly experienced it in the legal profession, so much so, I have to be honest, that I just - I didn't like being a lawyer, and I talk about that.

I was in a big firm, and it was just not a pleasant experience. There were very few people that looked like me. You do feel a sense of isolation. And I'm a pretty friendly girl. I think anybody that knows me would agree with that and very hardworking, et cetera.

But it's - the story that Cindy tells that's very common when you talk to African-American women in whatever profession, whether it's medicine, law, academia, industry, et cetera. And so I think that this is something that - that's why this book - for me, I want African-American women to read it, but who I really want to read it are corporate leaders, corporate executives, white men, white women, those who are usually in charge and have the authority, you know, whether it's in human resources, et cetera, so that they can really...

And I interviewed a wide array of people, including Caucasian men and women, who are, you know, in these positions, and they want to know why they're not able to retain and advance women of color the way that they need to and want to.

And so I think that I'm hoping we have a dialogue just like the one we're having now, where we can kind of talk openly about these things without pointing fingers or casting blame or, you know, getting angry with one another but simply saying, you know, there's a standard of treatment - I like the way she said that - that's much lower for black women.

NEARY: We're talking with Sophia Nelson about successful black women and some of the stereotypes that many of them still face. We'd like to hear from African-American women in the audience. Do you deal with this? Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. We'll be continuing this discussion in a moment. I'm Lynn Neary, and this is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.


NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Our guest is Sophia Nelson. Her new book is called "Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama."

Despite the many achievements of African-American women over the years, she says many still face nasty stereotypes, and you can read how to overcome the negative media images in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We'd love to hear from African-American women in the audience. Do you face these stereotypes? And if so, how do you deal with them? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Sophia, I wanted to talk about some of the stereotypes and just kind of go through them, and the caller that we had on before, Cindy, I think she touched on one that I'd like to hear you talk about. She said that in the workplace, people will - a woman said that she didn't like working with African-American women because they get too emotional, they're too touchy, they're too sensitive.

Is that a stereotype? Is there any reality to that? Let's talk about that.

NELSON: Well, I think that - now, that's one I have to be honest I've not heard before, and I'm trying not to laugh here, that black women are by any means scary or likely to cry. That's usually the opposite of what the stereotype is for us. The usual stereotype is that we're overly strong, overly aggressive, overly assertive.

And so I was a little taken aback by that, but I think probably what she really meant and what the woman was saying is - particularly in the context of diversity training that corporations go through, that law firms go through - in my experience, when it's been a backlash of people resenting that they have to be put through this kind of training or be told how to deal with other people or treat others differently, and then what ends up happening is I think what the woman that she mentioned her job may have been saying is if I am dealing with African-American women, I've kind of got this landmine, if you will, of navigating emotions, feelings, am I going to be perceived as racist, as I going to be perceived as not treating her fairly.

And that's the kind of thing that I talk about in the book, again, particularly in chapter three, which is the workplace chapter. And I think that's a very rich chapter for young women, particularly young black women and young black men.

But I think women can learn a lot from that chapter, as well, because what I talk about is mentorship and how important it is to have a sponsor, usually a white male or a white female. It can certainly be an African-American male or female who's made it up, if you will, the corporate ladder.

But if you take an Ursula Burns, for example, at Xerox and look at her success over 25, 30 years at that company, there's no doubt that the gentleman who was CEO when she started as an intern and mentored both her and Anne Mulcahy, who's a white woman and became the first CEO of Xerox, he took them under his wing and made clear to everybody these are my girls - for lack of a better way to put it. You don't touch them. If there's a problem with them, you come to me, and I'll deal with them.

And black women don't tend to get that same sponsorship that white males, white women and others get, and black males don't often get it, either. And so here we are in the 21st century, and again we have a black president, and by no doubt can I say that we haven't made progress. Of course we have, enormous progress.

But, the progress we've made has been very slow and very difficult, and I just think that the one white partner in my office that said to me well, Sophia, you're just going to have to wait your turn, I mean, the civil rights movement was only 40 years ago, so you can't expect to be on par with your white peers right now, you'll get there, but unfortunately it's going to take 20 more years before it happens. I was not happy with that comment.

NEARY: What do you think is the most destructive stereotype of accomplished black women?

NELSON: I think that it depends on if you're dealing on relationships or in the workplace. I think if it's in the workplace, it's the one I talked about that we're too difficult, we're too aggressive. We're often isolated. I think we're the hardest-working folks. I think that's always a good checkbox on our evaluations.

But there's always, always - I don't care if you brought people donuts every single day and were nice at the office, I guarantee you, you will get on your evaluation that you've got an attitude adjustment. I've never not seen it happen. It's happened to me. It's happened to every woman I know. So I think that's a challenge.

I think relationally, I think it's the same stereotype. I think it's that we're cold, we're hard, we're walled-off. I've been on any number of radio shows since the book came out, mostly black radio, you know, the big ones like Joyner, Basin, et cetera, and it's amazing to see the stereotypes that black men have of black women in relationships and how destructive those are, as well.

NEARY: All right, we're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Naomi, and Naomi is calling from California. Hi, Naomi.

NAOMI: Hi, there. Hi, how are you?

NEARY: I'm good, thanks.

NAOMI: Great. You know, I just wanted to comment, and it really struck me when you mentioned that you were also an attorney. I myself just finished law school. I'm getting ready to take the bar exam. And I just wanted to mention that it had been my experience as - throughout law school, I have noticed that it is far more difficult for an African-American, in general, but as a woman, as well, for us to land those big-firm jobs, for us to land those coveted jobs that a lot of the other students are - it seems to be coming to them a lot easier.

The excuse has been grades, you know, are you in your top 10 percent of your class? Are you in the top five percent of your class? Well, no, but, you know, for me, for instance, I had no - there was no reason for me not, in my opinion, not to be considered as someone who was more than I guess eligible or have the experience and the desire and the drive to get those big-firm jobs.

I mean, I was a White House intern. I was a Senate intern. I had legal experience. Yet I was not offered those positions. And on top of all that, I had the experience where I was working as a coordinator for a jobs fair for black law students. And, you know, a lot of these black students, women and men, came from all over the country to attend this jobs fair, and the law firms that came, none of them hired any of these students because they said that they weren't qualified enough.

And I had access to their grades. I saw that they had very strong grades. These were, you know, wonderful, professional people. And, you know, I actually had one firm say: Hey, you know, we're actually not going to hire anybody. We don't think anybody is...

NEARY: All right, Naomi, I'd like to hear Sophia respond to your comments. Thanks so much for calling in. I appreciate it.

NAOMI: All right, thank you.

NELSON: That's an excellent statement that she shared. She's dead-on. I think, however, it's a little more complicated, though, than just whether or not these minority students are qualified or not qualified.

It goes back to a systematic and systemic system in our country that started with slavery, that goes through Jim Crow, and people hate when I say that, but it is what it is, guys. Read chapter two. I don't want any reparations. I don't want an apology. I just want you to listen for a minute.

And what I'm trying to say is that when you have hundreds of years or generations - let's just start with the civil rights movement forward. As my partner said to me: Hey, Sophia, you'll get there, but you're not going to get there as fast as white women or white men because there's a system in place that has given them advantage.

And this is someone being very honest and candid. You know, I might not like what she had to say, but she was giving me real talk. And so I think that Naomi needs to read my book because chapter three deals with this and tells her how to navigate it through research and through great interviews, et cetera, with experts and people who have done this successfully.

And I think that we again as a country need to evaluate, and we as professionals, particularly I'm speaking to my profession, now lawyers. You need to get with it and stop with the diversity window dressing, and you need to really get down to the systemic problems in your firms and in your recruiting process that allow you to say well, if we've got one or two blacks or one or two Asians or one or two Hispanics, as long as we hit those numbers, that's sufficient because we know, Lynn, that those people don't stay, and they don't make partner, and that's what's important, that they come in as associates and that they succeed, and they thrive.

And that's really the challenge. So a lot of firms shy away from even wanting to hire people of color because they - again, they feel like it's loaded - it's a landmine. And I talk about this in the book. And as long as the decision-makers feel that black women are a problem versus an asset in the workplace, they're not going to hire us. It's that simple.

NEARY: All right, I'm going to read some - this is an interesting email from Amanda in Cincinnati. She writes: I'm a black woman in IT, but I'm not culturally black, nor do I identify or try to identify with black things. I'm not recognizably culturally black. I don't feel isolated, mistreated or discriminated against.

Many of my managers accept my ideas when they're good, and I have no problem networking or climbing the ladder. How much of the racial issue is more culture and less the obvious looks? One of my friends comments that he hates it when I act black because he perceives it as not reflecting my intelligence. I think we have the media to blame for that, Tyler Perry included. What do you think about that? 2

NELSON: I think that's a powerful email. I'm assuming by she saying cultural - I have two nieces that I talk about in the book - I actually have a picture of us before chapter nine - that are biracial. And I'm assuming that she's probably biracial of some kind. I don't know if it's white, black or whatever, but she may not look...

NEARY: Or just that she doesn't identify with...

NELSON: Right, well, but - no, let me be clear. You can't not identify because if you were to look at me, you know I'm a black woman. I couldn't just say I want to identify white. So what I'm saying is yes, I think she's made a good point, and I think that I'm offended, though, by - but I've heard it a million times. I've had people say to me, well, you're different. You're articulate. Wow. You remember, Vice President Biden said about the president that when they were running that he was articulate and clean. He didn't mean it as a derogatory statement, but most black people were very offended because we've all been told that when we're educated that we're different. And so I think that's what she's saying.

And again, I think the great thing about this book and this discussion that we're having - and I really thank NPR for this. I love you guys and appreciate all that you do because this is a important discussion. And you're bringing it to the forefront. And I really want my white colleagues, counterparts, friends, you know, fellow Americans to kind of wake up and realize that you kind of have to understand that, you know, it's not just about you. It's about others as well. And you kind of have to make yourself available and open doors and be willing to mentor and dialogue, you know, as well, because that's how we're going to make progress.

NEARY: All right. Let's take a call now from Rissa(ph), and Rissa is calling from San Francisco, California. Hi, Rissa.

RISSA: Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I'll try to be brief here. Just want to encourage Sophia. I love your book, love what you're talking about, particularly systemic roots and the tokenism of diversity. I'd also want to caution against anyone believing that the solution to some of that what we experience - I ran a six-member team that was responsible for strategy and innovation of a Fortune 50 company. And everything that you're talking about, I experienced.

And I'm sure every woman who has been in a leadership position of that type experiences that. But also, the solutions, I think, don't have to do with conformity. I also like to caution you against, saying that in your introduction, with having Michelle Obama look like Angela Davis is an insult, because Angela Davis is also a successful woman.

NELSON: I agree with that. I agree with you. I didn't mean to say that. No. no.

RISSA: And part of what we need to do is not only pay attention to the systemic roots of problems but the innovation that's necessary to overcome those roots. So...

NELSON: I agree.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Rissa.

NELSON: Yeah. And let me just clarify, because I love Angela Davis. I met her in college. And what I was saying is that's not an insult to me but to the greater American culture. Angela Davis was seen as, what, a radical leftist activist, right, who's going to burn something down. That was the comparison of - comparing Michelle Obama to her and depicting Michelle Obama as someone radical from the '60s with a machine gun on her back was meant just to bring up the fear in the images of what radical, angry black women do.

NEARY: All right. I just want to remind the audience that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We're going to take another call now from Derithea(ph) in San Francisco. Hi, Derithea.

DERITHEA: And thank you. And I want to really thank you for this program and for your - as a professional black woman, I'm in my 60s, so - a Ph.D., have been a professional for a while. And, you know, I think the issue is outside - the issue is not inside. Black women in leadership really do feel good about themselves, but it's the society around us. And coming from some of the ways in which we have to deal with it, I like your idea of mentoring, but the only thing that I would add to it is that African-Americans and other people of color need two mentors. They need a mentor from their own culture or from a cultural group that is not an in-group, because you also have to learn how to survive.

If you're going to be - especially in corporate America, if you work for yourself, that's different, then you're your own boss. But in corporate America, you need a mentor who is going to get you to work through institutional racism, but you also need a mentor from your own cultural group to let you know that there's nothing wrong with you. So if you're only trying to assimilate or trying to get to the top, you will forget that you come - that you have a sense of identity that comes from a different experience, and that the way in which you perceive the world and your experience is whole and healthy and right.

And some of the bias and some of the racism that you will experience, if you're the only one experiencing it and you don't have someone who is also experiencing knows where you're coming from to talk to, then you will internalize it. And by the time you get to the top and get in those positions, you won't feel very good about yourself, and you will have lost yourself in the process. So someone who has been in a professional position for over 30 years, you also need to have yourself identified and validated as well as you work through you the system.

NEARY: All right.

DERITHEA: Because you can believe everything you hear because it's usually not true. It's usually someone else's fear of your power and your position that it's coming from.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Derithea.


NEARY: I don't know if you want to respond to that, Sophia.

NELSON: Yeah. Just dead on, I think it - I talk in my book, in chapter 11, about the powerful importance of having those mentors and the sisterhood, if you will. And they can be older white women, black women, Asian women, Latino, I don't care what they look like. But it's very important, she said, to have people that culturally identify with you as well as being, you know, a part of your experience to validate; to know you're not crazy. You're not making this up. Yes, that wasn't appropriate that that happened.

And so many times that she says you are made to feel about yourself because - I remember it got to a point where I didn't want to go into work anymore because you felt so isolated. You didn't get invited to the outings. You never were a part of the group. Some of that had to do with being an unmarried woman because, let's face it, married men are going to be a little more cautious about being seen with younger, single women even if they're colleagues. That is just what it is. I mean, I get some of that. But a lot of it was just being isolated from the rest of your peers, and she's absolutely right about what she said.

NEARY: And just - we really have a very short time left, but...


NEARY: ...I just want to make the point that you also talk about beyond the workplace as well. You also talk about personal relationships and how black women relate to black men and the differences between them. And, you know, I don't know if you quickly just want to touch on that.

NELSON: No. Again, I just want to say thank you for having me on. "Black Woman Redefined" is a book about the whole black woman and everything about us that's ever been stereotyped or mythalized(ph) about us from time immortal till now, and how we move forward in a positive and fulfilling way. And, of course, I use Michelle Obama as this metaphor, as this ideal person that our young women should try to be because I don't care what color you are. Michelle Obama is a great role model for your daughter to follow. I don't think anybody would argue with that. She's smart. She's educated. She has a great husband, great kids. She has it all. And she seems to be a pretty in balance, decent, good human being as well.

NEARY: All right. Sophia, thanks for being with us. It was fun talking to you.

NELSON: You, too.

NEARY: Sophia Nelson's new book is "Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama." There's an excerpt on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Up next, there's no way you can read every good book or watch all good movies, so how do you choose? NPR's Linda Holmes will help us figure that out. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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