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Enter any major big box retailer and go into the stationery aisles or arts & crafts sections. You are sure to find a multitude of notebooks, planners, bags and backpacks or any other item used for students and professionals. If you dig deeper, you’ll be able to sort those items into fanciful designs choked with glitter, flowers and embellishments. Depending on the latest animated character craze, you might even find the face of your child’s favorite cartoon prominently featured on the items.

For African-American buyers, shopping in these crowded aisles during the holidays and other festive occasions can trigger a void in finding products made by or representing Blacks. I understand this pain point all too well.

As the owner of Cocoa Twins, an arts & crafts company that creates Black characters for use in a multiple of artistic designs, I have been disheartened by the lack of mainstream cultural diversity in this industry. I remember shopping with my nine-year-old twins for stationery, apparel and trinkets to give as gifts and to keep for themselves. They came to me with tote bags, sweatshirts and accessories but voiced a concern. All of these items had cartoon images, but none of those characters looked like my brown-faced daughters. My daughters wanted me to color or redraw the faces and hairstyles on their items to make the characters look more like them.

My immediate response was to use my artistry to enhance these images so that my daughters would feel connected to them, be proud and confident about displaying their purchases. At that point it dawned on me — there was a stark lack of representation of people of color in the stationery and arts & crafts marketplaces. Ultimately, this is how Coca Twins was born.

My company, which is now three years old, sells digital images and products proudly emblazoned with brown faces, full lips and noses, bright eyes, textured hair, headwraps and other features that represent people of color, specifically African-American males and females. 

I was used to not seeing images of African-Americans in these spaces. I think many of us aren’t used to it. But my daughters sparked something that empowered me to fill this void. African-American representation should be a norm in any marketplace, especially when our buying power contributes so significantly to the economy.

Historically speaking, most of the stationery and arts & craft marketplaces have historically under-represented Blacks. There’s the occasional brown-faced character such as “Stacie” (the Black Barbie), Cabbage Patch dolls, Doc McStuffins and a few others, but they were mostly supporting characters and were hard to find across multiple product lines. Buyers specifically seeking stationery and art & craft items featuring African-American faces and themes have found it difficult for generations. This means that the $9 billion stationery industry and the $857 craft supply industry are notoriously known for not representing or including products featuring or catering to people of color.

For many of us adults, we can more than likely recall our childhood memories being void of any characters, toys, products or images that properly and prominently represented us. I intentionally set out to brazenly place my hand-drawn art on supplies, apparel and accessories so that our children don’t have the same experiences. And though I thought I’d receive backlash, instead I got custom requests, sold out of inventory and I needed to add more Black characters to my inventory.

My success urged me to empower others to do what they could to saturate the marketplace with art made by Blacks for Blacks. In my heartfelt opinion, it is our job to show our people how to create opportunities, especially ownership opportunities, for themselves. I do this by creating art that others can license and place on their own merchandise for resale. Imagine what would happen if more of us infiltrated marketplaces and created opportunities to represent our needs and interests.

It’s so important for us to set the narrative and standard for how we should be represented. Even in my industry, there is a distinct difference between a Black artist depicting us vs. a non-Black artist characterizing us. When we draw ourselves, we put care in our features, complexions, body shapes and personalities. That’s what I seek to do with every character I draw. She or he looks like someone I know or have seen. There’s no prejudice or misinformed perspective; it’s us in our glory.

I have seen African-American customers become very frustrated with non-Black artists for not including brown images in their artwork. This is especially evident for web-based shops, proven by customers who discuss these issues in Facebook groups. In fact, Black customers would reach out to these shop-owners and ask why they weren’t being represented and if the artists could take custom requests to literally “color” some of their popular white characters brown. There is certainly an outcry for more African-American representation, but we’re asking others to do something that we could do for ourselves.

As a people, we should discuss ways to grow our business, but more importantly, brainstorm how we can continue to serve the needs of our communities with our talents, products and services. We have to get over our fears and insecurities about the idea of people taking things from us or swallowing our opportunities. To combat this, it’s imperative for Black business owners, especially artists, to learn how to protect our work.

Our fear, whether validated or not, either prevents other Black businesses from entering and growing in this industry or it causes them to shrink their exposure and promotion. I think most of us are unaware of what we can do to protect ourselves and our work. I’ve learned what to do and I share that knowledge with other business owners. And now it’s their job to share that knowledge with more people to empower and prepare them. The more we share knowledge about how to grow our ideas and protect our investments, the more we can see representation in spaces where we’ve been excluded.

When it comes to art-based businesses, it’s very important for us artists to be observant and recognize the shifts and opportunities. With more artists/shop-owners entering the marketplace and finding success on sites such as Etsy, Blitsy, Shopify and Teachable, major industry players are starting to take notice and work on inclusivity and representation. What used to be a concern about theft and monopoly is now turning into highly-profitable collaborations between retailers and Black artists who sell Black images.

I’m optimistic about the slight shift, but I still encourage Black artists to pave the way for themselves. This isn’t a protest, where we rally for change and stop when our voices are heard. We are purposefully inserting ourselves into this space. We’re adding our images into a marketplace where, as a collective, we spend millions of dollars every year.

There’s a lot more to come from Cocoa Twins and it’s deeper than stationery, accessories and apparel. We’re solving a problem and answering a call. What we’re doing is hopefully empowering Black artists, shop-owners and customers everywhere.