Justin J. Pearson chose to wear a dashiki on his first day of work as a newly elected Tennessee State Representative last Thursday. The Black Democratic lawmaker said he chose the outfit to honor his forefathers. However, his choice of attire, which originated in West Africa and is popular among African Americans, was criticized by some of his colleagues, according to Action News 5.
Pearson’s outfit also sparked a debate about lawmakers’ dress code policies. Pearson took over for the late Barbara Cooper after winning a special election in January. “Wearing this dashiki on the first day of school and being sworn in is paying homage to the ancestors who made this opportunity possible,” Pearson explained.
But, during last Thursday’s opening remarks, Republican Representative David Hawk appeared to take issue with Pearson’s attire. And, while Hawk made no direct reference to Pearson, he did mention an encounter he had with the late Lois Deberry.
Deberry, a Democrat, was said to be a seasoned Tennessee legislator. She was also the first African American woman to serve as Speaker Pro Tempore. Hawk said during his speech that the deceased lawmaker once called him out for not wearing a suit and tie 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 passed away in 2013. “There will be more people in the body who represent the plurality of our country,” Pearson predicted.
Following Hawk’s remarks, Pearson took to Twitter to accuse Hawk of attacking him for wearing a dashiki. He also posted a photo of himself wearing the dashiki with his fist clenched.
“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.”
Although Action News 5 reported that there is no written rule regarding the House floor’s dress code, the news outlet stated that the Speaker of the House is in charge of 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.”
Pearson, however, has stated that he will not be deterred from honoring his culture and ancestors in the State House. “Since I was eight years old, I’ve been wearing suits. It’s not a problem with wearing suits; it’s a problem with upholding systems that tell people what’s wrong and what’s right based on what’s considered normal, and in this status quo, what’s normal is what’s white,” Pearson explained.