The Short Version, or “All Your MTV-Generation Attention Span Can Handle”

Thembi Ford is a pop culture writer, commentator, and humorist living in Los Angeles. She founded the award-winning blog What Would Thembi Do? and runs a Facebook humor feed by the same name that draws over 20,000 impressions per month. Thembi writes regularly for print publications ranging from The Village Voice at home to The Indian Express abroad. She is the former Daily Web Editor at Clutch Magazine and her writing has appeared online at The, Pop Matters, and others. Thembi’s lively and informed opinions on entertainment, journalism, online engagement, education, and pop culture have been featured on VH-1, various podcasts and panels, and regularly on HuffPost Live. She holds an Economics degree from Harvard University and an M.A. in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC Annenberg.

The Long Version, or “What I’d Tell You Over a Glass of Wine. Or Three.”

Thembi Ford grew up in Philadelphia as a rather chubby, very nerdy, couch potato/latchkey kid. Due to this, she read a lot. She had a grandmother who taught her the difference between a twig and a branch by pointing at a picture book one day, and the realization that it’s important to use the exact right word for things blew her mind and gave her a love for words that she still cannot shake. And as the oldest of three children, she learned that the best way to get people to listen to you is by making them laugh first, thereby demonstrating your wit and rightful role as the one in charge, so she’s always been funny.

Also, Thembi watched a lot of television. Like, a lot. It took her years before she understood the racy nature of Three’s Company or why her crush on John Ritter at age 9 was inappropriate, and she quickly learned to identify with the poverty of Evans family on Good Times despite her solidly middle class upbringing. More than such details, she knew from an early age that there was something special about television, even if it was clearly in syndication. Television, the comfort it provides, the messages it sends, and the way that it reflects what people care about at any given point in history, began to fascinate her and continue to do so today.

By her teens, Thembi discovered her gift for recognizing every person who has ever appeared on television by name or at the very least by their previous roles (believe me, this was much more impressive before the internet came along). She also discovered her gift for writing. So what did she chose to pursue academically? An Economics degree at Harvard University. No, really. It made sense at the time. Pop culture was for watching, not for thinking about and certainly not for writing about. Writers are poor and she knew what poor was. From television.

A few years and mismatched corporate jobs later, Thembi had leapfrogged from marketing to business development to writing for an education non-profit. Technically she was in the Global Division, and traveled around the world selling and managing standardized testing programs. Thembi loves education and standardized testing stuff because Thembi is a serious nerd and has stopped trying to hide it. Give her a nice set of grammar problems first thing in the morning and she’s a happy girl all day.

All of that writing regularly made something click in her, so Thembi started the blog What Would Thembi Do?* hoping that someone out there could appreciate her love of pop culture nostalgia, take on current events and entertainment news, and above all else her sense of humor. With the tagline “Pontifications, coonery, quips, blasphemy, miscegenation, freshness, concern for celebrity life, the beauty of blackness, the sorrow of work-life, the curse of brilliance, and sassy stories,” WWTD was born.

First, it was just her and her sister and two best friends commenting back and forth. Then people who she wasn’t related to started to read it. Then casual acquaintances. Then people she’d never even met before. Then people who she’d never met before who weren’t even spammers. Then she was mentioned as Best of The Net in Philadelphia Metro and wrote a few columns there and some pieces for local magazines. Then she contributed to The Smoking Section, AOL Black Voices, and The Root. She was quoted by people like Ishmael Reed and argued with by various trolls and people who called her racist because she openly liked black culture stuff. She appeared as a talking head on a VH-1 special, became the cultural correspondent for a popular podcast, and was requested for panel discussions on black pop culture. She knew she had arrived…just not where, exactly.

After realizing that she could not continue staring at the four walls of a cubicle in New Jersey much longer, in 2010 Thembi applied for an Annenberg Fellowship at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism and actually got it, which still sort of surprises her. She would go on to earn her Master’s in Specialized Journalism, The Arts with a special focus in black pop culture, learning a whole lot about how to be a good critic and hardcore journalist along the way. Her thesis, “The Social and Cultural /Significance of A Different World,” went back to her couch potato roots. She had to re-watch all six seasons of what she’d always thought was her favorite show. Dwayne Wayne! Whitley! Mr Gaines and his ornery colored wisdom …but for over 100 hours. It was far less fun than she imagined, but she is now academia’s premiere expert on one of the best black sitcoms (and best sitcoms, period) to ever air.

Despite many hiatuses over the years, Thembi has always returned to her baby WWTD and maintained a thriving Facebook community and Twitter feed for jokes, to share her work, funny pictures, and just plain trash talking. She’s also been published all over the web and in print, continues to offer commentary on pop culture topics through speaking engagements, panel discussions, and podcasts, and is quoted as an expert by other writers. This makes her overjoyed. She also likes to be hired to do things so you should consider her if she sounds as great to you as she does to herself. Thembi working on a bunch of “top secret” stuff that anyone familiar with her work could probably imagine on their own, which makes it not so secret after all but definitely in the “coming soon” stage of things. She won’t stop writing and talking and being Thembi about things until she runs out of things to say and ways in which to say them.

*The name “What Would Thembi Do?” has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus. It’s something one of my brilliant derelict friends said to a few of my other brilliant derelict friends at a frat party one night. They were too old and too black to be at such a party but a bro asked one of them to do a kegstand. She looked at the others for help with the decision-making process, and one said “What would Thembi do?” No more thought was needed — she did the kegstand. For the record, I have never done a kegstand, but I’ve never been one to let “supposed to” reasoning keep me from doing stuff that’s not people my age/size/color/gender aren’t supposed to do, and frankly I’m judgmental towards people who let society limit them in that way. So yes. What would Thembi do, indeed…?

  • Madolyn Hyde says:

    I’ll be checking in on your viewpoints. Like your way of thinking! Good question for Shemar. Check me out on Twitter/Facebook. You do what you love and at times God gives you that shove you’re going on the right path. Have a good evening!

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