As a young African American boy growing up in Paulsboro, New Jersey’s public schools, Donte Neal learned little about black thinkers and leaders throughout American history. In fact, lessons mostly came down to one man, George Washington Carver, in one month, February. His real education started with the hip hop he listened to growing up in the 90s—Wu-Tang Clan, Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest—with references to James Baldwin and Marcus Garvey and black revolutionaries. That was the jumping off point to Neal’s true understanding of his world, and himself.
But what if Neal lived in a world in which entire colleges were based on the philosophy of Baldwin or Garvey or Harriet Tubman? What if young African Americans could aspire to attend Audre Lorde University?
That’s the world Neal envisions with his School of Thought, a series of college-inspired sweatshirts from Philadelphia Printworks, a social conscious-focused t-shirt company run by screenprinter Maryam Pugh. Seen from afar, the shirts seem to announce existing colleges, like Penn or Princeton. In reality, they make clever references to what Neal refers to as “intelligent, progressive, courageous” African American thinkers: Tubman University (with a rifle logo); University of Baldwin (in Saint-Paul de Vence, Paris); Carver Agricultural University; (Ida B.) Wells; Garvey Industrial Institute; and Audre Lorde University. Wearing one, someone can proclaim allegiance to Baldwin, say, the way they might to their alma mater.
“I as a black kid in public school, didn’t have the opportunity to be taught in depth about these particular individuals or their schools of thought,” says Neal, a Brooklyn-based illustrator. “We create our own mental schools, take responsibilities for our own educations. We found a way to represent that in a material way.”
School of Thought is the latest collection from Philadelphia Printworks, which Pugh co-founded in 2011 as a way to combine her nascent creativity with a passion for social justice. “We decided t-shirts were a good way to get out our message,” she says. With a partner, she taught herself how to screen print, rented a studio in North Philly and started putting out shirts that reference marginalized communities, often through images and messages that are throwbacks: Black Panther “People’s Free Food Program” tote bags and “No Justice No Peace” tees; a feminist collection with a t-shirt that lists Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” and a sweatshirt that reads “Chisolm for President ’72,” referencing Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisolm, the first African American woman elected to Congress and first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Last year’s collection was “Cognitive Dissidence,” with images that represented immigration reform and police brutality. “They are about the reverse of cognitive dissonance,” Pugh says.
“It’s about the mentality to actively dissent, to go against the grain.” Next year, Pugh is planning a kids’ collection.
A software quality analyst at Oracle by day, Pugh—who grew up in Coatesville and now lives in Ardmore—designs much of the gear in her online shop herself, or collaborates with a handful of designers, like Donte. School of Thought combines Donte’s longstanding appreciation for collegiate aesthetics—varsity jackets, architecture, sweaters—with their shared passion for Afrofuturism, a literary and artistic movement most often associated with black science fiction that imagines a different, more prosperous future for people from the African diaspora. (Retired Temple professor and science fiction author Samuel Delany is among the most prominent Afrofuturists.) The collection, which hearkens back to Donte’s teenage exploration of black thinkers, has become Philly Printworks’ most popular collection.
“These shirts are a way for me to say, I wish these schools existed, with a curriculum put together based on the ideas of these folks,” Donte says. “It’s about being able to forecast how things could and should be.”
All photos: Brick x Birch