Wishing You a Happy Heritage

One of our readers writes:

I'm what's known in the trade as a heavy user. It's an all-American sin I'm not fond of discussing in polite liberal company. I am addicted to greeting cards. The mushier the better. I have stacks at home, waiting for holidays that are light-years away. I prefer black-image cards, but in a pinch--forgive me, Father Kwanzaa--I will buy anything my hot little hands can pull from a rack. Like other overworked African Americans, I have been reduced to visiting the local Super Stop & Shop for jiffy doses of black imagery. In fact, I must confess: I have taken to buying Hallmark, a white corporate giant's version of black culture. Am I committing treason? You should know that you're not alone in your obsession. The greeting-card business, which prefers to call itself the "social expression industry," is no back-alley operation. This year Americans will buy over 7 billion cards, says the Greeting Card Association, an industry trade group. Card-sending has doubled in the last decade, fueled by a culture that, so the drill goes, fears direct contact and has no time for family bonding. African Americans alone spent $500 million last year on greeting cards.Hallmark spokesperson Michelle Buckley describes her company's mission as "being the voice of the people...to [mirror] change, but in many instances to effect change." (By way of example she notes that, in 1958, Hallmark released the first greeting card to acknowledge divorce, years before it was family business-as-usual.) Whether greeting cards are secret agents of social change or not, the integration of this image trove in the 1960s was as momentous as the other social upheavals of the time--an expansion of our idea of who qualifies for the American dream.Hallmark's African American line, Mahogany, marks its 10th anniversary this year. What began as an offering of 16 greeting cards is now a line of 800. Hallmark and its big "Big Three" counterparts--American Greetings and Gibson--piggybacked on the creations of smaller black-owned enterprises that supplied the book and culture shops ushered in by the Black Power movement. But with the 1990 census confirming the arrival of a new multiculti America, the industry had no choice but to step lively once again. American Greetings updated its blackline, "Black Expressions," in 1992, giving it a new name ("Baobab Tree," after the legendary African tree of life) and a new look--decidedly kente. Indeed, one industry publication calls the new rush to serve ethnic markets a "stampede."In 1994, Hallmark christened its Ethnic Business Center, a think tank devoted not just to targeting, but dominating, the ethnic market. You can now find Mahogany cards in every supermarket chain and their ads in every major black publication. Industry- watchers say Hallmark's investment won't pay off for five years or more, so Mahogany stands to be with us for a while. In its latest press sheets, the company goes so far as to trumpet the line as "the leading brand of African American greeting cards."Hallmark's come a long way since the 1940s, when "uncomplimentary, black memorabilia-type images" were stock items in the company repertoire, says Alston Greene, Mahogany's creative product designer. In the '80s, the company drenched cards in kente and mud-cloth so there would be no mistaking its good intentions. Circa 1997, Mahogany has been inching away from obvious Motherland motifs toward an aesthetic best described as "Afro-Americana," based on stateside traditions: jazz, the black church, sports, and the value of education. One high-end card features a collage of upstanding ancestors in spectacles framed by old timepieces and lace--perhaps the codification of a new genre,"Afro-Victoriana." Die-hard black-image hounds are quick to criticize the Big Three's African American palette: They're "too mawkishly sentimental" (some find the ultrapositive sentiment patronizing and dull); or they "try too hard" (the words pride and heritage used in every sending situation) and often rely on "overwrought ebonics"--"Hope your birthday is one slammin' jammy jam," reads one Hallmark card. Yet watching a night of action-adventure films is guaranteed to fill you with a newfound respect for the black images spun by Hallmark et al. At least in the Mahogany world there are "Granddaddies" and "Pops" (new monikers that reflect African American preferences), as well as cards for "My Lady" or "Baby" (culturally specific names for female significant others). And at least the men don't die in the first half hour, and the women aren't desexed judges or prostitutes. Most of the press on the Big Three's invasion of the ethnic-card market has lauded them for recognizing an underserved population. But what impact do these corporate mammoths, with their superior distribution networks and vast retail outlets, have on the small, minority-owned card companies that were once the market's sole providers? Launched in 1985, Carole Joy Creations, based in Danbury, Connecticut, stamps "a 100 percent black-owned company" on its cards, perhaps as defense against the glut of kente imposters. Co-owner Victor Gellineau describes the effect of mainstream competition as "severe." The Big Three, he says, have begun "selling up and down the street to the small mom-and-pops, positioning themselves as our direct competition. It reminds me of David and Goliath, with Goliath trying to snuff out little David." Most troublesome to Gellineau is that many customers assume that Mahogany is a black-owned company and seek out the cards for that reason alone. In every Hallmark division except Mahogany, the company name and trademark crown are displayed prominently. On the back of Mahogany cards, "Hallmark" appears in tiny print on the copyright line, without its signature crown. A small omission or marketing genius?Perhaps the big companies' entrance into the market ultimately benefits a larger group of African American consumers than the black-owned specialty outfits could reach. It's an old question, but if the product is good, does it matter who owns the company? We may not be supporting a small black business when we purchase Mahogany or Baobab Tree cards, but aren't we supporting the black employees who are often on the front lines lobbying for responsible product? Hallmark's Alston Greene called the black presence at Hallmark "visible," with African Americans directing the creative and marketing teams. Paul Quick of Hallmark's Ethnic Business Center wouldn't comment on whether the company's success with Mahogany would be followed by an effort to make its workforce more reflective of its target demographic. But Quick did eagerly point to "gift-bag giveaways" and a six-city tour of author Iyanla Vanzant as evidence of Hallmark's commitment to African American communities. Vanzant, spiritual guru and now celebrity--greeting card scribe, is featured on Mahogany's Acts of Faith cards issued this summer.The marriage of Vanzant (considered by some to be an Afrocentric iconoclast) and Hallmark (as American as Chevrolet) is further evidence of the pureeing of Afrocentricity--its politics and imagery--into nothing but a neutered patch of "style." One buppie consumer said he no longer had any interest in collecting African art after seeing a particular McDonald's ad on television. The ad is set in a gallery where the sculptures come alive and dance when they smell the aroma of McDonald's french fries. What's the moral here? Ancient African spirits find deep-fried potatoes to be something of an aphrodisiac, or corporations will do anything these days for that black dollar? Research: Heather Dubin

 
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