James McBride on 'Deacon King Kong' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders James McBride is the National Award-winning author of The Good Lord Bird and the best-selling memoir, The Color of Water. His latest book is Deacon King Kong, which is set against the backdrop of 1960s Brooklyn and tells the story of how one man's decision upended an entire neighborhood. Sam talks to McBride about race, religion and community, the parallels he sees to the world we're living in today, and why he's still optimistic, despite protests and a pandemic.
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James McBride on Race, Religion and Why He's Hopeful

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James McBride on Race, Religion and Why He's Hopeful

James McBride on Race, Religion and Why He's Hopeful

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Hey, y'all. Sam Sanders here. You are listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. So a question I have been asking myself a lot lately about all this new activism we're seeing right now is whether it's authentic and whether it will last. So I asked that question to my guest for this episode.

JAMES MCBRIDE: Racism has been our Achilles' heel for a long time, and it's been the cancer that has just been killing us. And now we want to address the problem. I mean, you can't address the cancer until you know you have it, and these people are seeing the cancer. Now, not all of them are going to become surgeons, but a lot of them will - you know? - enough that the conversation will change.

SANDERS: That is the voice of the legendary author James McBride talking about race and our current moment. And throughout this episode, you're going to hear James get very philosophical and very direct about, honestly, all of 2020. I called up James McBride because his work means a lot to me and, I mean, honestly, not just to me. He is a big deal. If you didn't already know, his bestselling memoir "The Color of Water," it was on The New York Times Best Seller list for two years. He won the National Book Award for his book "The Good Lord Bird." And his book the "Miracle At St. Anna," it's also a Spike Lee movie.

Fun fact - I actually interviewed James McBride twice for this episode. Not sure I've ever done that before for this show. Let me explain. I initially wanted to talk to James about his latest book, "Deacon King Kong." It's all about race and religion and community, set against this backdrop of 1960s Brooklyn. Already, it is one of the best and biggest books of 2020. And when I first called up James McBride to talk about that book, the biggest story in the news was the pandemic. But we realized after the protests began that it would be really strange for you to hear this amazing and wise man give so much advice for life and not hear him talk about the protests and all the issues they raise. So we called James McBride back and did another entire interview. And, dear listeners, let me be clear here. Every second of everything he says in this episode, it is worth your ears, I promise.

All right, let's get to it. First up, our chat on "Deacon King Kong" and the pandemic.


SANDERS: "Deacon King Kong" is really all about community and how communities are forced upon each other all the time and they can't escape each other. The people in the Cause Houses projects in the book, they are all up on each other all the time. The whole borough of Brooklyn, as you write it, it's black people and Latino people and Italians and Jews all bumping up against each other. And it must be really ironic to put out a book like that where the idea of uncomfortable community is a big thing in a book at a time when most of us really can't be amidst our communities physically.

MCBRIDE: That's true, but the truth of the matter is that, you know, how close were we anyway? I mean, you know, the New York that was represented by "Deacon King Kong" is certainly not the New York that existed three months ago, you know, where you didn't have to stand in line if you wanted to get groceries, when people would order from Amazon to get a box of Special K so they wouldn't have to stand in line and where, you know, most of your bodegas and small merchants in Sunset Park, where I am, you know, are at the mercy of any city inspector who comes along and says their sign's not the right size and it's going to cost $3,000 to put up a new sign, which would drive them out of business. And then the big-box stores and the other big merchants move in. And then, you know, after them come the well-to-do, and then all the Spanish-speaking people and the poor whites and black artists - you know, they're gone. And that's just how - so that was New York three months ago. But in 1969, well, it was a different time because we didn't have cellphones and we were all forced to kind of try to get along. And also, there was a spirit in that time where words like diversity and tolerance weren't part of our vocabulary. We just simply - either we got along, or we did not.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, like, there's these vivid scenes throughout the book where it's just people of all different stripes outside together in a courtyard here or a street corner there or wherever, and you're just, like, together with these people. And you know their faces and you know who they are and you know their stories. And whether you like them or not, they're there, and you just deal with it.

MCBRIDE: Well, that's really what made New York special. There were less people there than there are now, and we were forced to get along. You know, nobody was completely happy, but there was a sense of...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: ...Purpose and, you know, community. It was - the overriding feeling I had as a child growing up in New York was that even though it was hard and it was vicious and it was a tough city, there was an undercurrent of kindness in most New Yorkers that you came across no matter what their color and no matter what their station. That sort of ended in the Giuliani era, frankly, when he, quote, unquote, "cleaned up Manhattan." You know, when they talk about cleaning up places, that means black folks, goodbye. And now we see what he really is like. And we see the Giuliani that black people in New York and Latino people have always known. But during the '60s, Mayor Lindsay - Mayor John Lindsay was mayor of New York. And he was an interesting man because he was a good-spirited person. I believe he was a Republican. He was just - people tried to get along. They were angling toward the better parts of their nature. There was not - you just didn't call the cops every time something went wrong.

SANDERS: Yeah. Speaking of - you know, actually before I get to my next question, I want to - or actually you, 'cause you can do it better than I can. I want you to set up the basics of "Deacon King Kong" so that folks who haven't read it yet can follow along with the conversation. So, yeah, a short plot synopsis, if you will.

MCBRIDE: "Deacon King Kong" is essentially a book about a deacon from a small Baptist church in the southwest corner of Brooklyn who gets drunk one morning, pulls out his old, ancient 38, walks up to the most dreadful drug dealer in the neighborhood and shoots him. He doesn't kill him, but he shoots him. And that shooting sets off - it's like dropping a rock in a pond. It sets off a wave of activity both in the community, in the church. Then you have the projects, which is a mix of black and Hispanic people. And then you have the surrounding area, which is Italian, Jewish. And then you have your Irish police force - largely Irish police force. And they all come together to kind of work on this problem. And as they deal with this issue, you see these different worlds coming together and how they come to know each other, to like each other, to tolerate each other, to respect each other and to even dislike each other. But you see all these different orbits, these - all these worlds spinning together as a result of this one act by this old unlucky-yet-lucky deacon who takes the law into his own hands.

SANDERS: Is there something to think about for readers of this book right now about luck? I think a lot of people in the midst of a global pandemic are wondering what it means to have good fortune or bad fortune, what to be grateful for, not grateful for. We're all reconsidering just how good or bad our lives are.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, I - yeah, that's a very good question. Look; you can read this a lot of different ways. You know, we've had seven years of benign lovely existence in this country without the kinds of challenges that exist now. But Americans are quite resourceful. And despite the, you know, the negativity that emanates from Washington and some of the creeps and bums that are running this country who hopefully will go to jail when this is all over - despite all that, we are really resourceful and funny and humorous people. And we'll come back from this.

I mean, there's a lot of good that has happened as a result of this business. And one of the things that the book is aimed at showing people is that you can be happy no matter what. The people in the Cause Houses are pretty happy people. I mean, they're screwed up. They're dysfunctional. They're like a dysfunctional family, which is how we all are. And, you know, we're dysfunctional, but we love each other. And we defend each other as we should. And if there's a great - the greatest sin, if there is any, that is coming out of Washington is this whole business of turning us against each other over just jive. That, to me, is the most treasonous offense of all because we are pretty much the same person here in America. So - and whoever doesn't like me saying that, well - or, you know, doesn't want to hear it, then you should probably - you belong in a different country.

So I think that what "Deacon King Kong" tries to show is that we pretty much are the same. There's no difference between us. We all want the same thing. And that's with the characters in the book, and that's in real life, too. So the best thing that can come out of what's happening now is that we have - we must come to the realization, and some of us are, that we will and have to pull together. And when we do that, we'll be as strong or better than we've ever been.

SANDERS: Time for a break. Coming up, the beauty of government cheese. BRB.

Are there some folks that will hear this interview and say, 1969 Brooklyn projects - actually not community for me, actually not good for me, actually not hopeful for me; I didn't like that? Are there others that you think who knew that time would say it actually was an awful time? And if so, what do you imagine a conversation with someone like that being like?

MCBRIDE: I don't think you can write books if you worry about what people think and what they're going to say. You know, the craft of putting together a story with a kind of complicated matter that is involved in story structure, you know, in a 300- or 350-page book, it's too complicated to worry about whether someone's going to say this. So - listen, if I listened to what people say, I'd be at Broadway and 155th Street shaking a tin cup right now. You just - you know that there's - you have a purpose to do something. You don't choose writing. Writing chooses you. And you do it to the best...


MCBRIDE: ...Of your ability. So I mean, I don't care if people don't relate to 19 - they don't have to, you know? I'm not going to drop to my knee and beg people to buy this book. I'd rather they buy a book - I'd rather they buy any book that illuminates them. I've had my 15 minutes. There are many young writers - really good writers - who deserve a lot more attention than I do. So I'd be - it's no insult to me if readers want to find a different book to read or they don't relate to what happened in Brooklyn in 1969.

But I will say this, it doesn't matter whether it's a gutter in Brooklyn in '69 or a gutter in Vienna in 1559 or a gutter in, you know, in Montana, in Boise, Idaho, in 2069, the human reaction to the things like love, peace, kindness, war, tragedy is pretty much the same.

SANDERS: I want to go back to this really rich scene-setting you do throughout the book about these projects, about 1969 Brooklyn. And I'm really intrigued on what aspects of life, then, you choose to really expound upon. There is a chapter about the ants that becomes this lovely explanation of, like, history through ants. I'm obsessed with the way you write about government cheese early on in the book. This description of this cheese takes on a whole page. And you - and, like - and it's just, like, beautiful and rich. And I wonder, how do you decide what aspects of that scenery and tapestry to say, I'm digging deep on that one?

MCBRIDE: I'm not sure. I mean, like, Jim Harrison, who wrote "Brown Dog" and a bunch of other really good books, you know, he - I remember reading one of his pages, a paragraph that was, like, two pages long. And it was - and it all worked. The explanation of the ants, which were - again, for those who haven't read the book, the drug dealer who gets shot has a fixation with the ants that come - that march into his building every year.

They started in that direction. They had a different purpose, actually, for the end of the book that they never - it never came again. It was supposed to come again. But by the time I got to the end of the book, they - the characters had just run away with the story, and the ants couldn't return. But sometimes, you have that...

SANDERS: Ants couldn't keep up (laughter).

MCBRIDE: Yeah, they couldn't keep up. They just were, you know, too small. And same thing with the cheese...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

MCBRIDE: ...You know, the government cheese that - the "Jesus's Cheese" chapter. You have to remember I was born in Red Hook, in the projects in Red Hook. So I remember when the government would give out these big chunks of cheese and these big cans of peanut butter. And...

SANDERS: Really?

MCBRIDE: And a lot of people stood in line to get it, and not all of them were from the projects. And not all of them were black either. And that was one of the purposes of writing this book. I wanted to tell the story of people whose story is never told. I mean, how many stories have you seen...


MCBRIDE: ...About the black church where they're going (singing) Jesus (vocalizing). You know, it's just like stereotypical jive. It's not really like, you know, in the - they just have these heavy women singing. And you can't even understand what they're saying - and the preachers. It's just stereotypical puff and smoke. It's not really - like, they're not really fully dimensional people, some of whom are shy and some of who are allergic to oatmeal or whatever, you know? They're just - they're caricatures.

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

MCBRIDE: So you know, I wanted to create people who are real. And that says - the same thing for the Italian and the Irish characters in the book, you know what I mean? Not all Italians are, you know, Don Corleone. And not all Irishmen are cops. And not all Irish cops...

SANDERS: (Laughter). Yeah.

MCBRIDE: ...Are kicking people in the head with, you know, blackjacks and so forth. You know, people are a lot more...


MCBRIDE: ...Sophisticated and complicated than that.

SANDERS: But you know no one wants to hear that right now.

MCBRIDE: I don't care.

SANDERS: I mean, like...

MCBRIDE: I mean, look, in the...

SANDERS: ...If you go online - yeah.

MCBRIDE: Go ahead. If you go online...

SANDERS: But like, you go online, and people are in their camps. You know, folks are in their tribes. If you're this, you must do this. If you're that, you must do that. You look like this - you're obviously that kind of person. Like, so much of the energy of the Internet is entirely diametrically opposed to this idea of people being nuanced.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean, I - frankly, I'm not, like, a big Internet person. I don't pay too much attention. I don't tweet and all that stuff.

SANDERS: You're better off. You're better off. You're better off, man.

MCBRIDE: But you know, I would just say that if I was a young person and I wanted to have original ideas, I wouldn't pay attention to much of that because anybody at home typing into a computer can say anything because you're not held responsible for your thoughts and for your negativity and your cynicism. Listen, I live and die with ideas. And without - cynicism does not inspire creativity. Cynicism inspires more cynicism.

SANDERS: I'm going to (laughter) - one more thing on the cheese, and then we'll move on. Just what I love about the cheese and the description of a line of folks waiting for government cheese, you are not giving into this narrative that people who eat government cheese are sad and that the government cheese is pathetic. You have this one line where you say of the cheese, (reading) this was fresh, rich, heavenly, succulent, soft, creamy, kiss-my-ass, cows-gotta-die-for-this, delightfully salty, moo-ass, good old white folks cheese, cheese to die for, cheese to make you happy, cheese to beat the cheese boss, cheese for the big cheese, cheese to end the world, cheese so good it inspired a line every first Saturday of the month. It'd be really easy to have a scene about people in the projects waiting for government cheese be sad, and you made it joyful. And that's like the energy of the whole book.

MCBRIDE: Well, look...

SANDERS: And I love that.

MCBRIDE: Every Saturday, I, you know, I have a - I teach piano, and I have 23 students. I'm less than a block away from the apartment where I lived as a kid, so I see people from the projects every weekend. Listen; people are put down - they're put upon, but they don't walk around being sad. They find things to be joyous about, you know.


MCBRIDE: And I've been more inspired by people from my old neighborhood than I've been anywhere else. I've been around the world, man. I have done a lot of stuff. I worked as a reporter at the Boston Globe, at The Washington Post. I've been - and I am more happy when I'm in the Red Hook housing projects talking to people who I don't know or people who knew me when I was a child than I am anywhere else because I feel like I'm home, and I feel like I'm making a little bit of a difference. And there's nothing like that, nothing like that. You can never - you can never go home again in some ways, but in some ways, you never leave home.

And so the larger question is what kind of country do we really have now? And I refuse to believe that we live in a country where people are evil and at each other's throats. At some point, we will take this country back to what it was and what it should be. That's really what "Deacon King Kong" is all about. It's about a community that comes together for just a brief moment to do the right thing.

SANDERS: Yeah, the cheese is good.

MCBRIDE: It's good cheese.

SANDERS: The cheese is good.

MCBRIDE: It's very good cheese.


SANDERS: I want some.

I have been thinking a lot about how the people in the projects in this book would live out a pandemic like coronavirus. Like, if the Cause was around now - let's freeze that time and place and those people - how would those characters be dealing with the pandemic? How would that community do?

MCBRIDE: Well, they would do what everyone else is. You know, look; the sad truth is that the pandemic is affecting the poor more than anyone else because the poor, the working poor, are the ones who are out on the front lines making or delivering the boxes, the Amazon. So all that stuff is delivered by people who are not rich. So the pandemic would be affecting the Cause Houses in a great way.

But on the other hand, the Cause Houses is a place of miracles. And, you know, when someone believes in miracles and they believe in God, then whatever happens, happens. So anything is possible in this world when you have faith and you believe. So I don't really - I think the pandemic, you know, would've affected the Cause Houses greatly. And in real life, it has affected the housing projects all over this country in a great way. However, on the other hand, if you have some kind of spirituality to you, you believe that there is a cause and a reason for this, and it helps you through the day. And in some ways, you have more going for you than some of the richest and most powerful people in the world because you have a wall to push against. You have a wall to push against. You have something to believe in. And there's no reason - if you have something to believe in, then you have a reason to get out of bed.

SANDERS: You said that the Cause Houses were a place of miracles, are a place of miracles. I like that. What's the last miracle that you've seen in the midst of all this? I think miracles are everywhere. What's the last one you saw?

MCBRIDE: Well, I think I just said it, you know? I think there's a second curve coming.

SANDERS: Yes, yes.

MCBRIDE: You know, there's a second curve coming to this pandemic. You know, they say it's going to hit us again, and, you know, and that may well be. But every time we get hit, we drop to one knee, we stand up again. And we are becoming more and more resilient and more and more clever about understanding what is happening to us in a mental - mentally. We're getting much more - we're quicker on the draw. We understand now that the language of politics and religion have become entwined and made into a kind of baseball bat that knocked us over the head and dropped us to our knees. We can't be hit like that again. So there's a second wave, and that second wave of understanding is descending on us as a population, and we're starting to see - we're coming into a new consciousness.

SANDERS: Yeah. A lot of - yeah. You know, speaking of church and spirituality and believing in miracles, a lot of people, in moments like this, will go to God, their god, any god, any higher power and say, why? What is the cause? What is the reason? Have you tried to give a - think of a specific reason or cause for this, or do you just say these things happen, and you live through a pandemic, and you can't ascribe a reason to it?

MCBRIDE: Well, there's no guarantee for any of us in this life. You know, tomorrow is not promised to anybody. I mean, you can't just go around saying, oh, woe is - you can't do that. You know, you've got to just get up and do the best you can. And then most of this is important - to be appreciated for what you've done. You know, there's no empathy within this society now. There's no sympathy for people who are losing everything, losing their homes and their jobs and their loved ones. It doesn't seem to be coming from the government. That, to me, is sinful. That's wrong, you know. Blaming someone else and, I mean, that's just - it's wrong. It's unspeakably bad.


MCBRIDE: And so we've got to adopt a new language, the language of healing, you know, the language of forgiveness and redemption.

SANDERS: The language of healing.


SANDERS: I like that. I like that.

What's the biggest lesson from "Deacon King Kong" that can be helpful to us in the midst of the pandemic? What is the biggest takeaway you hope that all those folks reading the book in this moment take from it?

MCBRIDE: Well, that we have to learn to laugh a little bit, no matter how bad it is, and that we are much more alike than we are different. Our commonalities far outweigh our differences. We are one big community, and, you know, together, we create a big muscle that can drive anything, any evil out of our midst.

SANDERS: All right, time for another break. When we come back, we check back in with James McBride and talk about the protests. Also, listeners, if you haven't already, do me a favor. If you like this show and enjoy what you're hearing - even if you don't - please rate us and review us at Apple Podcasts. It helps us out - something about some algorithm. I don't know. Trust me on this, OK? Just do it. Thank you. BRB.

After we discussed the book and the themes in the book, you talked pretty optimistically about America even in the midst of pandemic finding a way to be a good place and people being good to each other and people finding hope and optimism in spite of that. I'm just wondering if your optimism is still there, seeing the last two weeks of news.

MCBRIDE: Well, I mean...

SANDERS: Or has it changed?

MCBRIDE: I think things are better than what they were when I was a young man. I'm not sure that young people now remember. They don't remember that we've been having this conversation since I was a kid. I can remember young people being shot by the police when I was a boy. And if you read in the history of Harlem and Brooklyn and Philly and the East Coast that I know, this problem of police brutality is not new. What's new is that we have had the technology to record it because in this world, the real problem is that unless white folks says it happens, it just doesn't happen. So with videotape evidence, there's just no refuting the fact that police officers - a small number of them - have gotten out of control. And I can't assume what the numbers are, but the mentality the president has brought to the nation is not new. It's just - he's just legitimized this sort of approach to policing, and they have a lot more weapons. They're armed to the teeth. They have, you know, all kinds of military-style weapons and have learned military-style tactics. And so, you know, the wholesale selling of fear has made this problem explode. But I'm very proud that these young people of all types have decided to take on this issue. However, if you don't vote, it doesn't count, really. It just doesn't count.

SANDERS: Yeah. What I have a hard time wrapping my head around right now is even though the issue has been an issue since America's founding - the way that black people and black men are treated by authority - what seems different this time when I watch the videos of the protests, when I go to see the protests here downtown in Los Angeles, like half the crowd is white. And there are white people there saying Black Lives Matter louder than the black and brown folks, and they seem to be more galvanized on this kind of issue than I've ever seen, quote-unquote, "white liberal America" ever before. That feels new to me. Does that feel new to you?

MCBRIDE: Well, yeah.

SANDERS: I'm sure you're seeing the way in which white folks are just coming out to do this thing right now. And I don't want to be cynical, but in my heart of hearts, I question the sincerity a bit just because we're trained as black men by this country to be cynical.

MCBRIDE: Look; don't fight the feeling. You know, it doesn't matter if someone comes out and protests every day or protests for five minutes. They're opening their heart and their soul to whatever they can give. And for that, we should be grateful. These people owe us nothing. They grew up in a society that told them every minute that they somehow were more privileged. And they're coming into the understanding that that privilege that was supposed to be theirs isn't theirs either. So, yeah, some of them will disappear into history and, you know, just end up getting married, living in the suburbs somewhere. And they have that right. They've earned that.

But, you know, whatever they want to - look; I don't care what - if someone brings a pot of beans to supper, and they're old beans, the fact that they brought the beans, that they got in their car or put their sneakers on and, you know, put deodorant on and walked the beans to church, then God bless them. I mean - because the conversation really has changed. I've never seen anything like this before in my lifetime. I've never seen this sort of visceral reaction from people. And it's because, I think, maybe, people are actually seeing that instead of believing the hype that black folks and brown folks are warring people who - you know, who are a drag on society, the people are starting to see that, well, you know, we're just like everybody else.

And, listen, it's not like the messages they're getting are from a guy who's a saint. So I think people have a right to be outraged. And I'm glad they're outraged. It doesn't matter how long it lasts. What matters is that it's shifting the society in the right direction. I'm very proud of these young people. I mean, they could be at home playing video games now. They're - you know, they're out there doing something. And that's more than what most of us are doing.

SANDERS: That is true. That is true. You know, and it's also that, you know, thinking about how white America feels different right now, the demands of these protests feel different as well, you know? For years since Trayvon and Mike Brown, there were demands for reforms, piecemeal changes to make the systems better. And now you hear these protesters saying abolish the police. Defund the police. Reimagine the police entirely. That surprised me. Did it surprise you?

MCBRIDE: Yeah. I mean, look; I remember when - you know, when Frank Rizzo was considered a hero in Philadelphia. This is a guy who was just ruthless when it came to dealing with the rights of black people. I mean, in Philadelphia, which is the last stop on the Underground Railroad, you know, that's really where it all happened.

So, you know, this kind of hypocrisy, when you've been living with it all your life, and you see people actually starting to address it in ways that are - that deal with the fundamental element of it, it makes you feel like, well, young people are starting to see the truth. This is the problem. Racism has been our Achilles' heel for a long time. And it's been the cancer that has just been killing us. And now we want to address the problem. I mean, you can't address the cancer until you know you have it. And these people are seeing the cancer. Now not all of them are going to become surgeons, but a lot of them will, you know...


MCBRIDE: ...Enough that the conversation will change. I mean, you know, you see this kind of pain has been going on for a long time. And I'm glad that people have experience. And I'm thankful to God that he put this in people's faces so that they could see it, and they could respond.


MCBRIDE: I'm hopeful. I'm actually - like I said, I'm very proud of these young people for doing what they did.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I am so glad that we got to talk again. I'm sorry it's under such circumstances. But I just appreciate the way in which you can, in this very lovely calming way, make everything kind of feel a little bit more all right. So thank you for that.

MCBRIDE: Well, I'm delighted that you think I have something to offer in that way. I'm encouraged about what's happening. I don't feel bad about it. I feel like change is difficult. It's hard. And these young people are doing the hard work. It's just that they should not waste time on nonsense. Deal with the real stuff, and everything will be all right, you know? We survived a Civil War.

SANDERS: I like that.

MCBRIDE: We'll survive this.

SANDERS: I like that. James McBride, thank you so much.

MCBRIDE: Pleasure's all mine. Always a pleasure to talk to you. And thank you for inviting me back. You know, I hope everybody's going to be all right (laughter).


SANDERS: Thanks again to author and all-around great human being, James McBride. His latest book is called "Deacon King Kong." Read that one, and read all of his other ones, too.

All right, listeners, don't forget we're back this Friday in your podcast feeds with another episode. For that one, we want to hear from you. You can share with the show the best thing that has happened to you all week at any point throughout any week. Record yourself on your phone. Email that voice file to me at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. You could be in the podcast and on the radio. Also, while you're at it, we accept video submissions as well and photos of cute pets and babies, too. All right, till Friday, thank you all for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. Talk soon.


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