Playing cards with true African American images
The bright red box with the photo and two much writing on its cover was secured with a beige rubber band drawn twice around it. The side facing me in the plastic wrapper inside a glass case at auction showed a single card of a black man, his face only slightly obscured by the rubber band.
Emblazoned above his head in big black letters was “Black History Playing Card Deck.” I felt a tinge of recognition. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew I had heard of this card game before, but could not recall having ever seen one.
The deck itself was tucked so tightly inside the box that I didn’t bother to disturb it. The box itself was a bit worn and frayed, but the cards and booklet were intact. On the outside was all the information you needed to know about what was inside:
52 Portraits of Distinguished Black Americans in Four Important Fields of Endeavor: Human Rights (spades), Adventure (clubs), Science and Industry (hearts), The Arts (diamonds).
Biographies by Deloris L. Holt. Portraits by Langley Newman.
The single card on the cover was Duke Ellington, flanked by a list of notable African Americans, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Owens, Bill Pickett, Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Malcolm X, Percy Julian, Ida Wells Barnett and Jackie Robinson. On the flip side was a collage of small photos.
The deck was produced by the U.S. Games Systems Inc. in 1977, and came with a booklet containing biographies of each of the famous. I assumed that you played the game like any other card game by matching the suits, but with a twist: You would be learning black history and the faces attached to it at the same time.
Both Holt and Newman have to be complimented for providing such positive reminders of what blacks have contributed to the country. An educator, Holt was also the author of another educational book called “The ABCs of Black History (1971),” which contained 26 biographies of African Americans in various disciplines.
Their cards did what playing cards from way back when never even considered doing. The earliest cards I’ve come across at auctions and read about on the web offered some of the most degrading images of African Americans – especially children – that the mind could conceive. Black children were rarely shown as innocents who wanted to just be children. The makers of the cards projected onto them all of the animosity they could muster for people who had done them no harm.
I’ve seen black adult images on Old Maid cards from the 1940s and 1950s that can only be described as terrible. At one auction earlier this year, I came upon a deck of cards from 1897 called “Game of In Dixieland” that surprisingly had some photos of black children that were natural – even though the captions were typically denigrating.
In an article titled “From Hostility to Reverence: 100 years of African-American Images in Games,” Denis Mercier noted that only after blacks agitated against stereotypical games or made them themselves did things start to change.
The latter is what Holt and Newman did and what others are still doing. I found several card decks with similar aims. Historian Darlene Clark Hine edited a deck of notable African American women, including Madame C.J. Walker and Josephine Baker, apparently in collaboration with the History Channel. A company called Print4Success headed by Anthony Green developed a deck of black inventors. HeroDecks Playing Cards marketed a deck that included President Obama.
On the web, I found the card deck from auction with a different cover, and it seemed to have been issued in 2003. The deck was selling for $5.50 to $39.99. I wasn’t around when the auction deck sold, but I suspect that it fell in that range.