Q&A: Wendi Thomas 

Departing metro columnist at The Commercial Appeal

It's been two and a half years since native daughter Wendi C. Thomas came back to Memphis, taking names and, well, writing about them, as The Commercial Appeal's first African-American metro columnist. She's called out Three 6 Mafia, Mayor Willie Herenton, and the Ford family, and received more than 13,000 e-mails from readers. But starting in April, she'll be writing for The Baltimore Sun. -- by Mary Cashiola

Flyer: why baltimore?

These columnist jobs don't come up often. The guy I'm replacing has been there for 27 years. Do I wait maybe another 27 years? I just couldn't turn it down.

I've had reporters ask me about my move to 2A from 1B [in the CA]. I didn't want to be moved. I think readers looked for me there. Right afterwards, I watched my e-mails and phone calls from readers just go in the tank. It was an incredible drop-off. I was disappointed by that. The Commercial Appeal did offer to move my column back to where it was if I would stay, but by that point, I had already accepted the job and I wasn't going to renege.

The Baltimore Sun contacted me before the column was moved. I had a friend who worked there ... and gave them my name. I did not go looking for a job.

In many ways, you became the mouth of Memphis.

The big mouth.

That's a great deal of responsibility. How did you deal with that?

On a day-to-day basis, I don't think I let myself be wigged out by speaking for the black community or for women or for young people. You just write what feels right to you that day.

Which one of your columns do you think had the most impact on the community?

The most response I ever got was to a column I wrote in January 2004 when Mayor Herenton had his whole God complex. I got more than 800 e-mails. I couldn't clean out my voicemail fast enough for people to leave more messages.

The column I wrote about the little girl who had dreadlocks and wasn't going to be allowed to perform in her ballet recital surprised me in terms of people's really visceral reactions to something that -- on a global scale -- is not that important. It's hair. You lose it, you grow it, you buy it, whatever.

On the other hand, I wrote about a young woman in Memphis who was kind of doing a one-woman campaign to end genocide in Darfur. I thought she was doing a wonderful thing and got maybe three e-mail responses. What readers see as important and what I see as important are often two totally different things.

With the kind of response you get, do you even answer your phone?

Honestly? No. I can't do it. People just want to say, "I really like the column" or "I really hate it," but it ends up turning into a 10-minute conversation. It's physically impossible for me to have 10-minute conversations with 20 people in one day and then write a column and respond to e-mails.

Could anything bring you back to Memphis?

I love Memphis. If, in 15 years, whomever they hire leaves, I would never say I wouldn't come back. I'm going to Baltimore with the intention of staying there as long as they'll have me. I would never say I wouldn't come back, if for no other reason than it would probably depress my mother further.

I've eaten at Blues City Café -- their ribs -- twice in the past week. And I'm trying to figure out how many times I can go back down there to stock up on barbecue before I leave town. People keep telling me that in Baltimore, they say they have barbecue, but it's not really barbecue. Whatever ribs you're going to eat, eat now. I am taking that advice to heart.


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