One of James Roland’s more ambitious attempts to connect his African-American heritage with pop culture came in the ’80s, after his goddaughter told him she couldn’t relate to her white Cabbage Patch Kids. So he created Sugar Pudd’n, a black doll that the Washington Times featured in a Christmas gift guide, calling them “lovable tots with thickly rooted, curly hair.”
Roland, 56, has spent much of his life searching for riches in niches. When he lost his federal job as a spokesperson for the Department of Labor in the early ’80s, he got into the board-game business with RIFFED—a riff on the acronym for “reduction in force.” The game sold well locally, but it was never picked up by a national company. It was too D.C.-centric, the big guys told him.
About five-and-a-half years ago, Roland walked into a JCPenney looking for “black dishes.” Sure, we have black dishes, he says he was told. We have yellow, green, red—whatever you want.
He tried to clear up the confusion—“No, I mean black motif, African-American motif”—but was met with blank stares. In that cultural gap, Roland found his next opportunity.
Roland now runs African China Closet from his two-story home in Brightwood. He designs decorations—Queen Nefertiti, the Amistad—for gravy boats, saucers, plates, bowls, creamers, vases, cardholders, whatever. A former freelance cartoonist, he has been drawing most of his life. He sends the finished designs to an Ohio company, East Palestine China, which produces and sells most of the final pieces. East Palestine China was a perfect match for Roland, who lacked the capital needed to get the business started.
That’s because selling the idea of African-motif china to black venture capitalists turned out to be impossible. “They think you’re talking about going to China,” says Roland. Pitches to banks met with equal success, he says, which is why he chose the DIY route, which requires almost no overhead.
So far, Roland says, he’s the only contender in the African-American china biz. A few years ago, a company called Ebotan got into the act, but it produces china for a more general audience. “When white people think of Africa, they think of animals. Ebotan put lions and tigers on its stuff, just like white people,” he says. Barbara Queen, owner of Echo Gallery in Union Station, has been stocking Roland’s china for five years. A $200 set of jazz-themed dinnerware isn’t something that people buy every day, she says, but sales are steady. “Christmas is the best time,” she says.
Roland says he plans to break one more mold as he passes on to the next world: to create a local, black-owned company that outlives him. He wants African China Closet to serve as an example to African-American students who might not otherwise have considered going into business. “I would like to leave this company—unlike BET and other companies that sell out, that become one-generational—as a legacy,” he says. “That business of working for 40 years at a factory and retiring is just not it anymore.”—Ryan Grim