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Black puzzles celebrate, affirm children's identities

As the country struggles with Covid, a range of legitimate social and political debates, and a tough economy, young Black entrepreneurs are using the medium of jigsaw puzzles to help Black children see themselves in the world.

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U.S. residents spent 13% more time at home from January through Feb. 12, 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. Source: Google’s Covid Community Mobility Report

We live in puzzling times.

Americans face an unrelenting pandemic, a battered economy and a badly bruised democracy. Many of us feel that our very identities, stories and struggles haven’t been understood or acknowledged by the broader society.

And on the most basic level, many individuals and families — frustrated by living under Covid-19 lockdowns and stay-at-home orders — are looking for ways to occupy their brains and escape from the boredom and stress of life during the pandemic.

No wonder people have been exploring new habits and hobbies — baking, knitting, home improvement and decoration, new workout regimens, walks and hikes, and yes, doing jigsaw puzzles. Sales of puzzles and games rose 32% in the U.S. from 2019 to 2020, according to data from the Toy Association. Puzzle sales for major puzzle makers like Ceaco and Ravensburger jumped even higher within the first two months of the pandemic, reports NPR. 

One small but encouraging sliver of this big picture is a move by some young Black entrepreneurs to reinvent the world of jigsaws by focusing on art that looks like them.

“Having a puzzle that looks like you helps a person see that they are just as special and important as everyone else,” said Ericka Jones Chambers, the co-founder and CEO of Puzzles of Color, based in Little Elm, Texas.

That may seem like a small thing to people who haven’t confronted the situation, she says, “but that representation is so important to help normalize and justify their experience.”

So Chambers — a project manager — and her brother William Jones — a graphic artist — decided to make that happen.

They actually got the idea in 2019 before the pandemic started, but it turned out to be a concept perfectly suited to the Covid world when they launched Puzzles of Color last summer.

Puzzles of Color uses Black artists to illustrate a collection of puzzles. (Photo by William Jones)

“There is a huge demand,” said Chambers, referring to a giant backlog of orders. The company sold thousands of puzzles the first day — far more than its founders envisioned, and far more than they were set up to handle.

But they’re working “day and night” to get the orders out and get caught up with the backlog, she said. “We’re so grateful for the people who have been patient with us.”

Puzzles of Color currently features nine puzzles by seven artists on its website, ranging in price from $21.99 to $31.99, and characterized by bold colors, engaging artwork and confident Black faces. All are suitable for framing when completed, Chambers said.

“We are selling puzzles, but we’re also selling art,” she said, “so the imagery is more unique than the average hobby puzzles you’d see from a bigger puzzle company.”

In Washington, D.C., another Black-owned family business came up with a similar approach for similar reasons, said co-founder Matthew Goins.

Puzzle Huddle launched in early 2018 —  a couple years before the start of the pandemic — and it features puzzles showing young Black children as everything from artists, cooks, students, scientists, doctors and astronauts — one spotlights a young Black girl sitting behind the President’s desk in the Oval Office.

“Seeing images of characters that affirm a child’s identity is important,” Goins said.

Marnel, left, and Matthew Goins, seen in Washington D.C. on Feb. 4, 2021, created Puzzle Huddle, which makes puzzles for children from diverse backgrounds. (Photo by Michael Edwards)

When he and his wife, Marnel Goins — an interim dean and communications professor at Marymount University — started buying puzzles and other toys for their children, they quickly noticed that few of them included Black characters, and discovered that other Black parents faced the same dilemma: “Where were the African American children?”

So the Goins family decided to help fill the need themselves.

The Covid-19 pandemic has both helped and hurt the company’s prospects, pulling in two opposite directions, Matthew said. The need for homeschooling and relief from boredom created by lockdowns and school closures — plus a resurgence in interest in movements like Black Lives Matter — have boosted sales. On the other hand, delays in delivery times from factories hit by the pandemic caused some products to be in short supply.

Even so, sales have roughly doubled each year Puzzle Huddle has been in business, and 2020 was no exception, he said. The company is also expanding into other, related products, including blankets, pillows and T-shirts featuring similar imagery.

But there’s something special about puzzles, especially during a pandemic that’s stretching everyone’s patience. Creating the borders, filling in the center, matching pieces to their proper spots — it’s satisfying to spirit and intellect at the same time.

Goins credits working on jigsaw puzzles with helping to create a sense of “relief and optimism,” and speaks with passion about the “problem-solving thinking” one can practically see form in a child’s features while he or she is pondering a puzzle.

Puzzle Huddle puzzles range from 15 to 200 pieces. (Photo courtesy of Puzzle Huddle)

Goins and Chambers agree that puzzles can be a wonderful bonding experience for families during trying times.

“Puzzles are a great mental break,” Chambers says. “It’s a way to bring everyone together and interact with each other in a way that can be more meaningful than watching TV and not talking.”

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Chris Rauber

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