Look at a typical deck of playing cards, and you see an assembly of European royals clad in medieval garb.
But no people of color.
“It’s crazy that we’ve had cards for hundreds of years, if not thousands,” said Jamaica Plain artist Sharif Muhammad. “But they’ve always looked the same, just one tone. So many of the people that play cards are ignored completely.”
So Muhammad set out to change that — not for the masses, but for his kids.
Using the design software Procreate, the Boston Day and Evening Academy teacher created six 52-card decks graced by fierce Black faces. He kept the pack at home for his 4- and 6-year-olds, so they could see themselves “reflected in a beautiful light,” Muhammad said. Remaining decks were distributed to friends and family.
“It wasn’t my goal to sell them,” he explained. “It was my goal to have a deck of cards that was different and more representative.”
But everything changed when the Brockton native took his creation to Facebook.
In November, Muhammad posted a photo of the cards to his personal profile. He watched likes upon likes piling on. His brother called to encourage him to sell the packs on Amazon. Over the next four months, Muhammad sold nearly three bulk boxes — each stuffed with 100 decks — through his website (sharifmuhammad.com).
Most of the orders came from local residents. Muhammad made door-to-door deliveries himself.
A second boost to his business came after he posted to two local Facebook pages last week. Acquaintances and strangers alike loved the fictional figures in armor and the Black fist Ace card. Forty orders poured in over a single night.
“I just figured I could sell a few decks by posting that way. And the next thing I know, the orders are going crazy,” he said. “The reaction I got was unbelievable. ... There’s not enough people of color in the media, and people clearly loved seeing themselves on something that is historically exclusionary.”
The surge in purchases has prompted Muhammad to order 2,500 decks from a large-scale, Chinese manufacturer. He’s also been in touch with brick-and-mortar retailers interested in stocking “Black Cards.” (Muhammad is still working on the price. Right now, one deck is $24, which he called “a little steep.”)
The “Black Cards” are in line with Muhammad’s other work. As a graphic design graduate, he has been selling art online for a decade while teaching technology classes in Roxbury.
On weekends and evenings, Muhammad “paints” glossy portraits on his iPad. His website and Instagram (@sharif_the_artist) boast art prints of real and fabricated Black figures — think Barack and Michelle Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., Kobe Bryant, and poet Amanda Gorman. Unlike his older, expensive oil paintings that catered to a wealthy, white clientele, these prints are affordable and accessible to all.
“White people were buying my paintings of Black people because Black people couldn’t afford it,” Muhammad said. “I just didn’t feel right, you know?”
Despite how many cards he sells, and how many fans he gains, Muhammad feels proudest watching his children play with the Black deck.
“They’re seeing their dad create people of color, create art, and produce these things from beginning to end,” he said. “That’s so important.”