Baron Davis remembers having next to nothing. The two-time NBA all-star and film producer was raised in the South Central area of Los Angeles with his grandmother, Lela Nicholson. Come Christmastime, she would decorate the living room with African-American Santa Claus figurines, as the image was absent in film and television.
"For me, Santa was white, and he was in Coca Cola commercials. You never saw a black Santa on TV and in movies, and when you did, it was usually a bum with a Santa hat, or a bunch of jewelry," he said.
Davis went on to have a prolific career in pro basketball, playing with teams including the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. But the monolithic image of "white Santa" continued to bother him years later.
That's what inspired him to start The Black Santa Company and trademark, which he launched last month with his (since-departed) co-founder, Chad Gordon. The startup sells related merchandise including ornaments, sweatshirts, wrapping paper, and "ugly Christmas" sweaters, ranging from $5 to $30. It also sells onesies emblazoned with motivational sayings such as "Be spirited, be successful," and beanies with the words "Bless Someone."
The company has been massively successful: Davis estimates that Black Santa has already generated nearly $500,000 in revenue, in just over one month. "We're sold out of almost everything," says Davis.
In addition to selling clothing and decorations, the company also acts as a creative agency, working with third-parties like Toyota on marketing campaigns. (Davis declined to say how much these clients typically pay, but given his star power, it's likely to be a substantial amount.)
Additional characters are in the works, like "Mrs. C," Black Santa's jolly compatriot, which is set to come out on Valentine's Day. Davis is also in talks with several companies to produce a "Black Santa" film and TV show. (He previously started 5 Balloons Interactive, a video game developer, and Verso Entertainment, a production company--both of which have been folded into the Black Santa umbrella.)
Is society ready for a Black Santa?
Earlier this year, Larry Jefferson, a retired Army captain, was chosen to play Santa over the course of four days at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. (It marked the first time in the mall's 24-year history that a black man was chosen for the part.) Jefferson has been perfecting his act for nearly two decades, and was a hit among the locals; hundreds of appointments had him booked over the weekend.
"I want to be able to let people who aren't used to seeing a Santa of color say, 'Wow, there he is.' It's time for America to diversify," says Davis.
But elsewhere, people weren't so happy, and took to social media to lament the choice.
"I hope every self respecting white parent does not take their children to this atrocity," said one critic. Another remarked: "Santa Claus was a German character from centuries ago when blacks were eating each other in Africa." "Why can't these people-shaped apes just stick to their made-up Kwanza ritual," someone wrote on what appears to be Facebook. A local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, was even forced to disable its comments section after running a piece about Santa Larry, due to the hateful response it received.
Davis, for his part, isn't surprised at the backlash. "Where there's love, there's hate; where there's positivity, there's ignorance." He insists that the Black Santa Company has not received the same kind of response thus far, inasmuch as it's about the story and the characters, and less so the color of their skin.
"When you see our content, and you follow Black Santa [on social media], you see that our world is colorful, and Black Santa's world is colorful," he explained. "He's for positivity and excellence and he wants to show that to the world."
Famed actor and director George Takei prosaically tweeted:
Watching people meltdown over a Black Santa in the Mall of America. "Santa is white!" Well, in our internment camp he was Asian. So there.-; George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) December 3, 2016
Promoting diversity in tech
The lack of diversity in the technology industry has been well documented. At large, African-Americans make up just around 7 to 15 percent of high-tech workers, and less than one percent of executives, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Davis hopes that his company can get more African-Americans interested in coding and entrepreneurship. "We want to fill these gaps, and be the bridge to something that has always been so inaccessible to us," he said. Currently, Black Santa Company has five full-time employees, several contract workers, and shops out the design of the much of its intellectual property to local artists in Los Angeles.
Of course, it's conceivable that the company could crumble come summer, when customers care less about the winter holiday. It's also possible (though arguably, not probable) that Davis could get signed again by a major team. But it's worth considering that Black Santa found success early on, generating $500,000 in revenue in just over 30 days. That indicates an extreme thirst for more diversity in the entertainment industry and popular culture.
Teaching kids about race and diversity
For children especially, early cues about diversity can have a meaningful impact on the way they perceive themselves, and their value in the world at large.
"A lot of what we think we know about the world, we learn through media," says Darnell Hunt, a professor of sociology at UCLA and the director of the Bunche Center for African-American Studies. He frequently consults on film and television shows, including The Haunted Hathaways and Game Shakers, both children's programs. "Tensions are often stoked by misrepresentation in the media, [and] children are more susceptible to these images because they have a harder time distinguishing between fiction and reality."
Others in the community see the designation of a "Black Santa" as problematic. Says Bob Henry, a teacher at the Lakeside School in Seattle, Wash., "I was no more distressed by white Santa growing up than I was by my mostly white teachers. Afro-centrists would disagree, but I prefer to think of it as liberating to look and see beyond color to find objects of identification and affection."
Davis, speaking by phone from his offices in Santa Monica, pauses to contemplate on some of the backlash that Black Santa evoked. Then he laughs, in a sustained, bowlful-of-jelly sort of way: "But how can you be racist or hateful towards Santa Claus?"