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BY Francis Akhalbey, 8:00am February 15, 2023,

Tennessee’s newest lawmaker called out for wearing dashiki on House floor

Representative wore a dashiki on his first day at work -- Photo via @Justinjpearson on Twitter

Justin J. Pearson last Thursday chose to wear a dashiki on his first day of work as a newly-elected Tennessee State Representative. The Black Democratic lawmaker said he decided to wear the outfit to honor his ancestors. But his choice of attire, which originates from West Africa and is popular among African Americans, was condemned by some of his fellow lawmakers, Action News 5 reported.

Pearson’s outfit also stirred a debate about dress code policies for lawmakers. Pearson replaced the late Barbara Cooper after he won a special election that was held in January. “Wearing this dashiki on the first day and being sworn in, wearing it is paying homage to the ancestors who made this opportunity possible,” Pearson said. 

But Republican Representative David Hawk appeared to take issue with Pearson’s choice of attire when he took the floor during last Thursday’s opening remarks. And though Hawk did not make any direct reference to Pearson, he shared an encounter he had with the late Lois Deberry. 

Deberry, who was a Democrat, was said to be a veteran lawmaker in Tennessee. She was also the first woman and African American to become Speaker Pro Tempore. During his speech, Hawk said the deceased lawmaker once called him out for not being in a suit and tie when he came to the assembly. 

“We honor Lois Deberry’s memory by how we look and how we treat each other and how we give the respect we hope to get back. I still, to this day, keep an extra tie in my drawer,” Hawk said.

Deberry died in 2013. “There are going to be more people who are a part of the body that represent the plurality of our country,” Pearson said.

Following Hawk’s comments, Pearson took to Twitter to accuse his fellow lawmaker of attacking him for wearing the dashiki. He also shared a photo of him wearing the dashiki with a clenched fist.

“We literally just got on the State House floor and already a white supremacist has attacked my wearing of my Dashiki,” Pearson shared. “Resistance and subversion to the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable. Thank you to every Black Ancestor who made this opportunity possible!”

But the Tennessee House Republicans responded to his tweet, saying that “referencing the bipartisan and unanimously approved rules for House decorum and dress attire is far from a racist attack.”

The tweet added: “If you don’t like the rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.”

And though Action News 5 reported there’s no written rule with regard to the dress code on the House floor, the news outlet stated that the Speaker of the House is the one who oversees decorum. 

“During her historic tenure in the General Assembly, the late Lois DeBerry established a precedent for attire that remains in place today; men must wear a coat and a tie if they wish to be recognized in committee or on the House floor,” Speaker Cameron Sexton said in a statement to the news outlet.

“Ms. DeBerry would frequently address members violating this precedent and remind them of the requirement. The speaker will continue to follow the precedent and the path established by Ms. DeBerry to honor her and her incredible legacy within our legislative body.”

But Pearson said he will not be deterred from paying homage to his culture and ancestry in the State House. “I’ve been wearing suits since I was eight years old.  It’s not a problem with wearing suits, there is a problem with upholding systems that tell people what is wrong and what is right based on what is considered normal and, in this status quo, what is normal is what is white,” said Pearson.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 15, 2023


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