Celebrating 30 years of Mahogany greeting cards
On a shelf above her desk, among family photos and tchotchkes, is her daily affirmation.
It's a greeting card featuring a little brown boy with a beautiful afro hugging himself, his smile wide, joy filling the gap where a baby tooth came out.
Inside, the message is simple: Consider yourself hugged!
"It takes me back to when I was a little girl growing up in south Kansas City in the suburbs as the only African-American in my kindergarten class," says Melissa McKenzie. "He's just hugging himself, and it's just this touchable, tangible joy."
Melissa has had this card on her desk for over 15 years. It is The One. And that's saying something considering she's a creative director for Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards.
For 24 years, she's had her fingers in capturing those everyday moments — the smiles, the tears and the laughter — and turning them into Hallmark moments. Her specialty is cultural identity brands, including Mahogany, celebrating 30 years as Hallmark's collection catering to the black community.
That card, she says, is a reminder of the brand's purpose.
"This is one card I will always hold onto," she tells me. "This is what we do. We are are here to give those hugs to people across the world."
For decades now, Mahogany has fought that pain of isolation Melissa felt as a kid by providing representation and uplifting the people.
Cards aren't just pieces of folded paper. I have a drawer full of them, and more are pinned to the walls around my desk. Many of them are Mahogany. One I've had since May 2001, when I graduated from Norfolk State University. The card speaks to the importance of black colleges: "It's not so much a harvest ground as it is a road to a higher ground."
As Hallmark senior writer Keion Jackson says, cards can express levels of joy and heal relationships in ways that people wouldn’t necessarily be able to do on their own.
And for a long time, people of color never saw themselves in these cards, in the language or pictures.
A wake-up call
Hallmark, the largest manufacturer of greeting cards in America, was founded in 1910 in Kansas City. It was almost six decades later, in 1968, that Hallmark introduced its first black cards. It was the height of the black pride movement — and the same year civil rights legend the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed.
There were seven cards, reflecting the funky vibe of the time. Standing in the archives at Hallmark headquarters is a walk down memory lane. The characters looked like Jackson 5 cartoons, sporting bell-bottoms and glorious afros, loud and proudly declaring love, beauty and a celebration of life.
By 1975, there were 18 cards, introduced as "Black Expressions of Love," celebrating friendship, romance and love. Many of them featured that soft, fuzzy photography. Sales would top $1 million by the following year.
The clear desire for representation was a wake-up call. Hallmark historian Samantha Bradbeer says the company wanted to offer more variety and ensure that when African-Americans walked into a store, they could find a card for any occasion. So in 1987, Mahogany was born.
Today, Hallmark is one of six Kansas City companies listed on Forbes' latest list of best employers for diversity.
Derrick Barnes, an award-winning children's book author and a former Hallmark writer — the first black male writer on staff — says we can't shy away from discussions about race. We cannot happily skip off in an effort to be color-blind. Seeing color is important, and Hallmark's decision to create Mahogany was diversity in action.
"When you see me, I want you to see a black man of African descent," he said. "How could we possibly create greeting cards for all Americans if we don't understand the different cultural nuances, backgrounds, derivative languages and variant ways of expressions that exist amongst the multitude of beautiful ethnicities that make up this country? Speak to my blackness, authentically. That's what Mahogany did."
It's not that black people can't buy mainstream cards. I've bought and received many over the years. But Mahogany speaks to my lived experience as a black person. Just like Hallmark's Vida cards are written in Spanish, and Tree of Life celebrates the Jewish faith.
Mahogany cards say melanin is "majestic." Colorism be damned. Black love still thrives in unforgiving circumstances, and Mahogany understands the long-lasting trauma of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration.
Hallmark doesn't explicitly take a stance on police brutality or racial profiling. It doesn't say Black Lives Matter. But then I read this on the pages of a Mahogany gift book, "Even before you were born, your name was 'Freedom' and your status was highly blessed." It empowers me to continue to fight injustice as those did who came before me.
"Mahogany is always paying attention to what's happening in the culture," Jackson says. "So everything that happens to black Americans is also happening to the people who work at Mahogany. I'm black, too. Whenever an unarmed black man gets shot, I'm also weeping at my desk. So we are in these moments with the people."
Mahogany is there to encourage, console and uplift. But it is also there to celebrate.
As Hallmark has done for other Marvel heroes, this month it is introducing cards and gifts inspired by "Black Panther," the first mainstream, mega-budget black superhero movie starring a nearly all black cast with a black director.
The film came out in February, but it's still in theaters. Next week we can finally stream it digitally, and it's still breaking records because it means something for kids of color to see themselves as a superhero, as Wakanda royalty. On Instagram, Mahogany teased this month's new cards with a pic that reads "Don't Let Nobody Steal Your Vibranium!"
The staff saw the movie together.
"It was a bonding experience," says Dierdra Zollar, Mahogany editorial director. "For us to have this shared experience of this cultural phenomenon together, it was hard to not get caught up in the excitement. It gave everyone that empowerment, that reminder to be proud of who you are and where you are coming from. And the women were so bad, fierce and strong. We have been celebrating those types of loyal and passionate women forever."
Zollar and her team are in constant conversation about what's happening in the culture. Their brainstorm meetings aren't in a stodgy, stark office. They sit around a dining room table, chairs huddled together, feasting over hard truths and pop culture celebrations, like Beyoncé at Coachella and what that means for historically black colleges and universities. The latest covers of Essence and Ebony magazines are splayed across the table. There is no topic off limits. And they are unafraid to turn a critical lens on themselves.
On a Wednesday afternoon, they re-examined how they represent black manhood. The recurring image is a man in a suit and fedora moving cool in the way of Billy Dee Williams or Steve Harvey. They want to change the narrative around masculinity and what it means to be cool.
"The tougher times for me are when I feel like we sometimes miss the mark," Zollar tells me. "It feels personal, like I really wish we could have executed that a little better. Every black person does not have an identical experience. We are very intentional about recognizing and representing that. It means a lot to me to get the story right, to see the voice take on other notes. And we are passionate about that evolution."
Much like the black pride movement fueled the earliest black cards at Hallmark, now the Black Lives Matter movement — with its accompanying celebration of black girl magic and black boy joy — has ushered in a new era of Mahogany.
The hugs are here, but they aren't all relegated to the realm of church mama and her wide-armed, squeeze-the-love-and-prayer-right-into-you hugs. Not everyone likes that. Some of the cards give dap. Others offer knuckle bumps, an Oprah auntie squeeze and kisses on the cheek, too. There's also the fist held high, symbolized in sentiments such as, "We've always been told that it's not what you're called ... it's what you answer to."
Mahogany ensures we're answering to love. Unapologetic, bold, black and beautiful.