What’s In A Name

Valaida Snow 4

Queen of the Trumpet Valaida Snow, circa 1930

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

I suppose Shakespeare was right, but with a name as uncommon as Valaida, I’ve always believed that my name somehow influenced my tastes and style. You see, my mother named me after Valaida Wynn Randolph, her roommate and friend at Bennett College. And Ms. Randolph’s mother named her after the legendary jazz musician Valaida Snow.

If you’re unfamiliar with Valaida Snow, you are not alone. Somehow, after her death in the 1950s, her star failed to continue shining brightly as was the case with her contemporaries and fellow musicians Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker.

Here’s a little more about Valaida from Wikipedia:

She was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Raised on the road in a show-business family, she learned to play cello, bass, banjo, violin, mandolin, harp, accordion, clarinet, trumpet, and saxophone at professional levels by the time she was 15. She also sang and danced.

After focusing on the trumpet, she quickly became so famous at the instrument that she was named “Little Louis” after Louis Armstrong, who used to call her the world’s second best jazz trumpet player besides himself. She played concerts throughout the USA, Europe and China. From 1926 to 1929 she toured with Jack Carter’s Serenaders in Shanghai, Singapore, Calcutta and Jakarta.

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Her most successful period was in the 1930s when she became the toast of London and Paris. Around this time she recorded her hit song “High Hat, Trumpet, and Rhythm”. She performed in the Ethel Waters show Rhapsody In Black, in New York. In the mid-1930s she made films with her husband, Ananias Berry, of the Berry Brothers dancing troupe. After playing New York’s Apollo Theater, she revisited Europe and the Far East for more shows and films.

Valaida lived an amazing, storied life, performing around the globe and thriving through trials and triumphs. Below is one of my favorite stories about her (hence the orchid accents here).

My fave Valaida Snow storyIn fitting fashion, while performing at the Palace Theater in New York City, she collapsed on stage, suffering a fatal cerebral hemorrhage, and was buried on her birthday. Her final curtain call given with flair. Brava!

So today, on the anniversary of her birth (109 years ago) and her burial at age 51, I am remembering the Queen of the Trumpet Valaida Snow (June 2, 1904 – May, 30 1956), a jazz musician extraordinaire and my namesake, once removed.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video about Valaida’s life.

Valaida Snow 5

My New Eyes

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

It requires “new eyes” to see a picture reframed. This quote sums up much of our TEDx Talk, which premiered Friday on BlackGivesBack.com. My 1621 days of discovery changed my sight on everything. And the voyage continues….  VF

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Without Limits

On 15 Feb 2013, Charles Thomas and I will be presenters at TEDxCharlotte. We hope you’ll register and come if you’re in the area.

UNLIMITED: Ideas Take Shape is this year’s theme for the annual, daylong creative forum. As collaborators on Giving Back, Charles and I will share what we learned while pursuing our idea of reframing portraits of philanthropy.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll experience . . .

If you’ve never attended TEDxCharlotte and want to know more, go here. And, if you’re unfamiliar with TED.com and its locally focused spin-off TEDx, go here, too.

After attending the last two years, I can tell you that TEDxCharlotte features a dozen or so selected presenters who share their ideas and 300+ participants who come to . . .

  • hear bold ideas…about technology, entertainment, design and other stuff
  • experience informative, entertaining and/or inspiring presentations
  • see innovative art projects and short films
  • network and connect with a mix of people
  • learn about new topics
  • find inspiration
  • laugh
  • maybe cry
  • eat (really, really) well
  • let loose
  • dance a little
  • never forget the day

Seeing you at TEDxCharlotte 2013 would be great!

Thoughts Before 2012 Sets

Receiving the call about Giving Back winning the 2012 McAdam Book Award for “the best new book for the nonprofit sector” was without question a major high point this year. Honestly, there were so many exhilarating experiences that it’s impossible to rank them.

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Remarkable sums up the past year of rolling out and publicizing Giving Back. We’ve marked 
many milestones since the book’s release 15 months ago.

The greatest honor in 2012, however, was the opportunity to engage with a 
cross-section of audiences—totaling more than 5,000 people across the 
country—and to participate in conversations about building community and 
philanthropy. In person. In print. On air. Online. These exchanges of 
ideas have been enlightening and gratifying.

Over the course of 2012, I gained a deeper comprehension of the biblical parable in Luke that includes the passage: to whom much is given much is expected. While I remain eternally grateful for a year that brought a multitude of blessings, I also have become profoundly aware of the weight of great expectations. Granted, a good many of those expectations were set sky high by my limitless imagination.

My prayer today is to step into 2013 with more faith, patience, humility and strength to receive gifts granted and then in turn to give even more than expected.

With those thoughts, I wish you a bright and wonder-filled New Year!

— VF

‘Root Meaning’ Grasped

L-O-V-E | Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

Recent media coverage of my op-ed delights me. While the piece was written for black media to mark National Philanthropy Day (November 15), its message holds relevance for everyone, any time.

Individuals, networks and media groups amplified the commentary by publishing and sharing it widely. My thanks to all who ran or read it. Below is a list of places where I’m aware it appeared. If you saw the piece elsewhere, please let me know. Now, go get your give on!

Reclaiming The Root Meaning of Philanthropy

  Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root.’ — Angela Davis

Let’s engage in the radical work of reclaiming the root meaning of philanthropy: love of humanity. Philanthropy, a curious word to many, evokes a range of images, beliefs and emotions. To contemplate its semantics and evolution and then to initiate anew our collective philanthropic practice could prove a seminal undertaking for black America.

This moment hangs ripe. The “season of giving” is near and clears the way to a new year of possibilities. The election of President Barack H. Obama has substantiated, again, the might of black unity. And yet, between the hopes and history making and the thanks and gifts giving are uncharitable acts and vitriol that signal a shift back in time, not forward. Indignities, inequities and injustices do not simply dissipate; instead, we must come together in systematically uprooting them.

With community needs great and the need for unity greater, the times beckon a new era of conscientious philanthropy rooted in a love for community and expectations of social change. Let this generation, both young and old, embody a social transformation with bold recognition of our power and responsibility to give back.

Philanthropy is a gateway to power. It is a chief means to acquiring, sustaining and strengthening our status—economically, politically, socially and spiritually. Our ancestors knew this. They originated and supported systems for giving and assisted members of the community, whether neighbor, stranger or kin. Remarkably, a fundamental source of our progress at times seems forgotten.

Remembering our long and prolific history of philanthropy is crucial. Historical accounts of black largesse and examples of culturally significant vehicles of giving abound. Look up the Free African Society, an 18th century mutual aid organization established by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. Study the social justice philanthropy of the legendary Madam CJ Walker. Before the Civil War, up through the Civil Rights struggle and after, our forebears charted paths and lay blueprints for progress. While the impulse to “give back” lives on in the community and opportunities exist to bring new twists to old traditions, this work must be encouraged and nurtured.

In the starkest of ironies, black Americans give the highest percentage of discretionary income to charitable causes when compared to other racial groups in America; and yet our philanthropy is discounted and overlooked by mainstream society. Indeed, within the black community, our traditions of giving are seldom acknowledged or celebrated, or even described as philanthropy. Absurd as it is, this cultural disconnect persists for many reasons and shortchanges us all.

Ideas and images of present-day philanthropy frequently fail to resonate and, worse yet, serve to alienate black Americans. Particularly unsettling is the stunning absence of black people in representations of philanthropists—a few select luminaries notwithstanding. A point of view endures that renders black donors and benefactors, in effect, invisible. The familiar picture of philanthropy is narrowly framed and thus gives a false impression that the only giving that matters is beyond the average person’s means.

On the demand side of philanthropy—as beneficiaries and “the needy”—is a common context for depictions of black children, families and communities. While but one facet of philanthropy, imagery around whites as the benefactors and blacks as those in need has devolved into a stubborn stereotype and produced a picture that distorts and is incomplete.

A richer picture exists. Widening the lens to include our customs and stories of giving yields a different view. Vibrant philanthropy is occurring in black communities, whether labeled as such or not. Even so, great promise rests in sharpening our focus to affect social change. Collectively, black America possesses the assets—heart, head, heritage and dollars—to eradicate a host of social ills. With our legacy of generosity, our shared stake in change and our capacity to leverage centuries-long gains in wealth, education and access, how could we not?

Exercising this power first requires a shift in thinking and wider recognition of the power of black philanthropy. Strategic alliances among black donors, across black communities and with institutional partners also are vital.

Significant in seizing the moment and sustaining the effort is love. Love of family. Love of culture. Love for thy neighbor as thyself. In its truest sense, philanthropy is rooted in love. Advancing social change with that spirit opens opportunities for everyone to participate and fixes the focus on liberating people not elevating oneself.

Putting our money where our heart lies. That is the charge. Begin doing your part today by deepening your knowledge of philanthropy, by examining your motivations for giving and by joining with others to grasp at the root causes of our collective concerns—for love.

Valaida

Reason and Rhymes

April is National Poetry Month and I’m taking the occasion to acknowledge and thank the poets—those in spirit and those in practice—who contributed important concepts and content to Giving Back.

Q | Photography by Charles W. Thomas Jr.

While wrapping up the book’s content during spring 2010, about a year and a half before the public release of Giving Back,  I asked a couple of close friends who are ardent readers to review and provide feedback on my near-final manuscript.

One friend in particular (we’ll call her ML) commented that it would be great if the book contained more than prose. To paraphrase, as I recollect it, she said, “You should include some kind of stream-of-consciousness, free-flowing, spoken word-like narratives.”

Huh? Hmm? What?!?!

After trudging through a litany of Herculean tasks, which included years of carefully collecting and curating content and meticulously crafting stories, that bit of feedback was far from well received.

Weaving in poetry was a valid suggestion—if fact, a brilliant one—but the protracted book-writing process had left me so thin-skinned that ML’s otherwise benign comment felt like a brutal assault on my long labor of love. “Apparently, what I’ve slaved to create is insufficient,” I sulked. Perplexed and seething in silence, I never asked ML to explain her rationale nor did I share my irritation.

Though pouting is admittedly an unflattering trait, the emotional churning served to heat up my creative juices and resulted in potent new content. (Call it poetic injustice :-)) ML’s casual suggestion had fueled this overachiever’s resolve: If she thinks poems are needed, then poems she will have! I promptly reached out to one poet and reached within for the other.

“Q”, a highly regarded poet and friend, had developed a spoken-word piece on philanthropy years prior for an event I organized. At my request, Q polished up the poem in writing, titled it and kindly submitted it for the book project. Entrancing as well as enlightening, “Full Circle” aptly closes Giving Back.

Ava, the other poet, seemed to come out of nowhere with a couple of spot-on new poems for the book. Timid initially, Ava and her poetry evolved, both becoming surprisingly bolder with encouragement from my friends and guidance from Q.

“Truth Be Told,” a poem expressly written by Ava for Giving Back, opens the book and has become a crowd-pleaser at book events. Even so, there was a time when I questioned whether her work was a good fit. Emphatic feedback from ML, Q and another friend, RG, made it clear that Ava’s poem merited not only inclusion but also prominent placement in Giving Back.

After reading “Truth Be Told,” RG gushed about it and wrote, “I want schoolchildren to read this poem!”

Q emailed a response I treasure most: “Ok . . . so the poem is DOPENESS!!! That last stanza is fiyah!”

I’ll wrap up by finally thanking ML for her discerning critique and by sharing another of Ava’s pieces. This one, haiku that’s featured in Giving Back.

Gave away my soul.

Giving back to get it back

Given what I know.

Ava Wood

Why and how are you giving back with your time, talent and treasure? — VF

Sold Out.

Yep. Due to steady public demand, we’ve sold out the first printing of Giving Back and a second printing is underway. This fact thrills me almost as much as releasing the book in October 2011. (Note: If you want a copy before June, there are still a limited number available at bookstores, online and for specific events.)

Back in December, we realized our supply would run out quicker than anticipated since we were distributing 100 books a week on average. So at the start of 2012, we put brakes on marketing and promoting Giving Back while we scrambled to devise a plan to print at least another 1500 books.

I find it ironic that reaching sold-out status in just months is largely attributed to our not selling out the original vision for the book. It should be noted that the term sellout—as in a betrayal of principles—is one I generally choose to steer clear of. I don’t indulge in second-guessing the motives behind somebody else’s artistic decisions, but I will refer to the term here while reflecting on my own creative experience.

Without benefit of a famous author or a celebrity foreword contributor or well-known faces  in portrait or rich-people stories or a corporate marketing machine or even a commercial publishing deal, Giving Back has nonetheless stirred interest among readers and sold out quickly.

Remarkable sums up what we’ve accomplished. The collective “we” in this instance comprises Charles Thomas and me, members of NGAAP-Charlotte, Casajulie, Buppy Hipster PR and our sponsoring partners, project participants, donors, family, friends and, of course, book buyers. I credit the book’s promising start to an uncompromising stance on compiling stories we knew were worth telling and a dogged pursuit of our vision.

During my 1621-day push to produce Giving Back, every day seemed to hand deliver a temptation to narrow my scope, drop expectations, clip corners…or to just cut myself some slack. Those options certainly looked the easiest and less painful. Actually quitting appeared the sanest choice of all. Despite the pressure, existential struggle and odds, I chose, or better still, surrendered to that which my soul seemed intent to seek.

Gifts that come at inopportune times are still gifts. The mixed fortune of conceiving Giving Back carried an obligation to see it through without underestimating its value. The experience, though brutal as it was at times, showed me how humility, hard work and the hand of a higher source can transform the ethereal into the real. At first sight of the final, hardcover version, my soul sighed and smiled in satisfaction. Giving Back is the perfect manifestation of a beautiful idea gifted to me years prior and stands as a tangible affirmation of my and others’ stewardship.

Truths revealed on the pages of Giving Back are key to it becoming sold out. I gave my best to usher the content into the spotlight and, once there, humanity undeniably shone through the portraits and stories. I cannot sell the idea that publishing a book and pursuing your passions are easy. From the start, my plan lay clear but the path was not. My circumstances while navigating the book’s development swung between circus and chaos. Tight-wire walker, trapeze flyer, lion tamer, fire-eater, juggler and ringmaster, I took on an endless stream of roles for nearly five years to get this book done and eventually did it.

The experience has left me unwilling to judge others who choose a smoother path. I will, however, attest to the joy of being a grateful receiver of gifts, of not selling yourself short and of putting your soul out there to satisfy its search. I found that when I dropped giving up from the options, my gifts—those given and those received—multiplied.  VF

On Doing Good Work

“…there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.” — Teju Cole, author, photographer and art historian

Charles W. Thomas Jr., photographer

As a friend noted today, there’s a lot to unpack in Teju Cole’s article titled “The White Savior Industrial Complex” and featured in The Atlantic. That’s an understatement, particularly when you begin comparing and contrasting the layered stereotypes, indignities and pain characterizing both the Kony 2012 campaign and the Trayvon Martin shooting. Cole’s incisive commentary stirs questions about where we choose to see injustice and why, when and how we take action in struggles for justice.

What Cole observes about the bleaching of our civic discourse, how certain voices are pushed to the margins and others amplified and the perils of failing to “think constellationally” are at the core of my current interests in philanthropy. My struggle with such issues led me to pen Giving Back. The book brings to the forefront seldom-heard voices, with authenticity and respect, to reveal important perspectives at the nexus of justice, philanthropy and progress. Through Giving Back, I aspire to enliven and deepen public discourse on these matters. I believe that community-led strategies strengthened by philanthropy that is inclusive, responsive and respectful are central to “good work.”

— VF