Eneale Pickett is a poet. He is, after all, a First Wave scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working on his craft alongside resident artists and faculty. And it shows. His words and sentences are laced with an artist’s grace and attention to exquisite turns of phrase, painting beautiful, elegiac descriptions of the world from which he comes.
And, like many artists, Pickett uses his work to an end, which for him means putting the spotlight on contentious issues of race and police brutality; however, despite his rhetorical richness, it is not written or spoken poetry through which he is currently addressing these subjects, but through fashion. Pickett started his own clothing apparel line, called “Insert Apparel,” in October of last year and to say it’s making waves is a hopeless understatement.
Though his family moved around fairly frequently, Pickett considers Chicago’s West Side his home. Surely readers are familiar with depictions that paint the neighborhood as crime-addled, impoverished or on a never-ending downward spiral. While Pickett does admit there is some violence on the West Side, it’s nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be. “Chicago’s not even the murder capital of the United States,” he told me when I asked him to tell me a little bit about his upbringing, “everyone thinks it is, but it’s not—there is so much life there, its people find so much life there” (for what it’s worth, he’s right: Chicago didn’t place anywhere on last year’s top ten list of most dangerous cities in America).
As Pickett described his love for his city, I began to see more clearly that the UW student is not just in the business of changing minds—most people’s minds can be changed if they’re confronted boldly enough with facts and statistics—but opening eyes to those parts of America that have been pushed to the wayside of the public consciousness as well. It is fitting, then, that Pickett studies Elementary Education with a focus in ESL. He’s ready to open the eyes of a new generation to a world of fresh possibility.
Children aren’t the only ones to whom Eneale Pickett wants to teach a lesson, though; he has his sights set on giving the whole country an education in race and criminality with the help of his bold, provocative clothing line. An incident involving a student spitting on and hurling sexist and racially charged epithets at another First Wave scholar’s face on UW-Madison’s campus during March last year was the spark that lit the fire that eventually gave rise to “Insert Apparel,” whose name derives from the idea that one should insert themselves in uncomfortable conversations.
In an interview with the university’s student-run newspaper, “The Badger Herald,” Pickett stated that the original intent of his graphic t-shirts and sweaters was to reaffirm the place of students of color and affirmative action recipients on UW’s campus. Among the items were tank tops and sweaters offering celebratory messages such as “Black Girl Magic” and more nuanced meditations on intersecting structures of oppression such as “Attention! Black Men: If you’re talking about dismantling systems, you better include patriarchy.” One of the more controversial items of his first lineup was a red hoodie upon which was emblazoned, in white lettering, the proclamation “All White People are Racist.” People did not take too kindly to Pickett’s message, sending him violent messages and death threats. When I asked the designer what he thought of the reaction, he told me he just “laughed off” the vitriol directed toward him. “People didn’t get it,” he said, “they didn’t see their obvious racism. They were mad about my t-shirts but not about the system.”
An advertisement for Pickett’s new September 2017 line containing graphic depictions of a black man hanged by a noose formed out of an American flag and decapitated pig heads wearing police hats prompted a second, more intense salvo of criticism, with everyone from conservative Wisconsin State Senator Stephen Nass to “the National Review” decrying what they perceived as an endorsement of anti-cop violence. Pickett, true to form and fiercely committed to his ideals, continued unfazed. “I didn’t say we should go out and kill cops,” he explained, “I’m saying we should go out and kill the system that dehumanizes black and brown bodies. But when you speak truth to power, you get pushback.”
Wanting to cut through the noise surrounding his most recent clothing line, I asked Pickett what inspired his latest designs, which, with offerings of poetic, arresting lines such as “Justice over there acting like she don’t know us knowing damn well she hear us calling her name,” center on themes of injustice and police brutality. “It was mostly Trump’s reaction to Charlottesville,” he says. “You know, with all that stuff about two sides. Well, there weren’t two sides: There was only one. I wanted people to see that there can’t be two sides in those kinds of situations.”
That Pickett grapples with huge topics of race and violence that are charged with the weight of troubled, expansive histories by blending literature, film, the visual arts and fashion, is fascinating. When asked about what he thinks the role fashion plays in inciting social change, Pickett mused for a moment before providing an answer. “Fashion,” he said, “lets you speak truth to power without you even opening your mouth. People just have to take one look at you to see what you’re about. You physically embody your beliefs; people can’t run away from that.”
Pickett does not seek to make anyone comfortable: He wants to jar the senses into action. His shirts and hoodies bear no conciliatory words of forgiveness—they profess a righteous anger that refuses to be ignored. If fashion allows you to embody an idea or belief, then Pickett is giving people the chance to wear their hearts out on their sleeves and letting the world see how they bleed. “I wanted to humanize black and brown bodies,” Pickett says of the primary message he wished to convey, “that’s what it’s all about.”
Eneale Pickett has his work cut out for him. Racism, police violence and a broken criminal justice system aren’t on the out and out just yet, but with someone like Pickett on the front lines, wearing history, anger and redemption on his person like battle armor, you can be sure those who strive to maintain systems of oppression will be facing a storm like no other.