By Ms James, from the "Just Because" card collection.
It was the first National Stationery Show (NSS) for Tara James, not to mention her first trip to New York. But even as she neared exhaustion toward the trade show's end last week at the Javits Center, she'd made a big step in getting her new By Ms James handmade paper goods company consumer off the ground.
Consisting of 150 greeting cards and other paper goods like "Black Santa" wrapping paper, By Ms James product is "made with love in Los Angeles, CA" and geared toward the African-American consumer. It features James' colorful artwork and lively messages reflecting "cultural traditions possibly forgotten , conversations you want to remember and memories you hope never fade."
Besides birthday and holiday cards, By Ms James so far offers cards for mom, dad, baby, love, graduation, sympathy and Valentine's Day. There's also "The African Proverbs Collection" (sample: "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
James conceived her line after a vain search for a suitable superhero poster for her then three-year-old son's bedroom.
"There were no black superheroes or anything that looked like him," says James. But since she remains an inveterate doodler—"I'll draw on anything, and if you give me your notebook, I'll draw on that, too!"—she was able to come up with her own black superhero versions.
"He'd ask, 'Why is Batman black?' and I'd say, 'Why not?'" says James. "I realized there was a huge problem that needed to be fixed."
So she looked back at her own childhood in Austin, when her father would buy the family black greeting cards.
"At the time I thought they were super corny, but on every major holiday without fail he would give them to us, with a black image gracing the cover and a message on the inside that I could relate to," she continues. "The cards were sold at an independent black bookstore that closed down shortly after my mother moved us to California. I never forgot those cards or the way they made me feel growing up."
After the birth of her son she felt the urge to bring those feelings back and pass them on to him—and inspire others with the "positive and relatable images of black people." And in filling what she perceived as a void for such product, she brought her own refreshingly honest and real personality to the project, sharing the advice and motivating/inspiring quotes that had been given to her.
James also included her family and friends in her illustrations. Her "Happy Birthday Queen!" card features a caricature of her best friend, while "To the Coolest Dad Ever" is her own dad. Likewise, "Thanks for Everything, Mom" is her mother, who died a year ago.
"She gave me the strength," says the otherwise exuberant James, now momentarily melancholic. "I'll need a therapist after this!" she adds, though a quick scan of her upbeat catalog should probably suffice. But she does stay serious a moment longer.
"People say that we have no history or culture, when in reality, it's all here in America," James says of the African-American experience. "And these cards have a universality: I'm from California, but I can relate with the East Coast."
She points to her "Struggle Plate—Tis' the Season" Christmas card, with its illustrations of traditional African-American food products alongside a big white-speckled black pot—all conjuring the so-called "struggle plate" of food that may not look as tasty as it actually is.
"Everybody has a pot like that," she says, "and if they don't, there's still one in the family somewhere."
James concludes: "We do have culture! We are important, and we do matter."