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A new Tennessee lawmaker walks into the capitol wearing a dashiki. House GOP suggests he explore other careers.

Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, wearing his dashiki in the House chambers.
Blaise Gainey
Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, wearing his dashiki in the House chambers.

Tennessee’s newest lawmaker was sworn in Thursday. Democratic Rep. Justin J. Pearson is filling a vacancy left in House District 86 in Memphis. But people were more focused on what Pearson was wearing.

Pearson, a Black man, wore his hair in a combed-out afro as he walked onto the House floor wearing a black dashiki. The loose-fitting pullover is associated with West African culture and a symbol of Black pride.

“This dress is resistance. This afro is resistance. What we are doing here is subversive to the status quo, and I think that’s going to continue to make people uncomfortable,” said Pearson.

And Pearson’s attire did make Rep. David Hawk, R-Greenville, uncomfortable. Hawk, in remarks on the floor, made a dig at Pearson, as he recounted a time he wasn’t allowed on the floor by former Tennessee House Speaker Lois DeBerry.

“I showed up one Monday night on two wheels trying to get in here, and I did not have a tie on. And she reminded me that ‘Rep. Hawk, if you don’t have a tie on, you don’t get to walk in that door,'” said Hawk.

But there’s no written rules on attire. According to the 113th General Assembly Permanent Rules of Order, decorum or attire is left up to the House Speaker. The House Clerk’s office said it’s been a longstanding practice for men to wear a suit and tie, and women to wear formal business attire.

So, in other words, it’s more of a norm than a rule. Pearson says he’s trying to change that.

“What’s happening here is you have discriminatory practices and policies to help homogenize this community to look like a cis white older man — which is westernized European culture, which is in and of itself its own expression,” Pearson said. “And we have to realize there are other expressions too, and to say there’s only one that need to be seen here is really saying there’s only one type of person that needs to be here.”

The clash over clothes boiled over to Twitter after Pearson posted a selfie in his dashiki. The Tennessee House Republicans responded saying maybe Pearson should explore a different career.

Pearson says he isn’t backing down — even if that means wearing his dashiki over his suit and tie.

Blaise Gainey is a Political Reporter for WPLN News. He is the youngest of three siblings, husband and father of two. He previously held the State Government Reporter position for WFSU News in Tallahassee. He is from Apopka, Fla., and graduated from The School of Journalism at the Florida A&M University. He previously worked for The Florida Channel and WTXL-TV. He is excited to move to another capital and report on state government. In his spare time, he enjoys watching sports, outdoor activities and enjoying family time.
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