On the anniversary of the murder of Malcolm X—”Culture is an indispensable weapon (to) forge the future with the past”—we salute Rep. Justin Pearson, a young black man who wore a dashiki—”This dress is resistance”—to mark his first fiery day as Tennessee’s newest lawmaker. America on a GOP, stubbornly stuck on the wrong side of history, freaking out that Pearson failed to follow (fictional) “rules” of decorum: “Masters’ boys still thinking they in charge of events.”
The fourth son of five boys born to teenage parents in Memphis, Pearson is a community organizer and social justice activist who helped found Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, a Black-led environmental group that successfully defeated a proposed multi-billion-dollar crude oil pipeline that would have poisoned much of the city’s drinking water. An advocate since high school, graduate of Bowdoin College, and Strategic Adviser for the Poor People’s Campaign, he recently helped lead a national workforce development non-profit before winning last month’s special election to fill a vacancy in House District 86 in Memphis.
Arriving in the state Capitol to be sworn in earlier this month, Pearson wore his hair in a combed-out Afro and a crisp black dashiki, a West African symbol of Black pride often donned on special occasions. Because it doesn’t take much these days, his appearance made the fragile heads of some of his racist new colleagues promptly, nastily explode. And so it began.
Noting he’d already been confronted by a white supremacist as “we literally just got on the State House floor,” Pearson posted a smiling, defiant selfie, fist in the air. “Resistance and subversion (of) the status quo ought to make some people uncomfortable,” he wrote. “Thank you to every Black Ancestor who made this opportunity possible!” A snarling response from the House GOP, presumably Speaker Cameron Sexton, came roaring back, and no of course they’re not defensive why do you ask. “Referencing the bipartisan and unanimously approved rules for House decorum and dress attire is far from a racist attack,” it said. “If you don’t like rules, perhaps you should explore a different career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.” Yes, grammar nerds and literary types with any education beyond, say, 7th grade: “career opportunity that’s main purpose is not creating them.” Yes, also, to those miscreants and rabble-rousers among you who hear “rules” and instantly think Nazis, lunch counters, drinking fountains.
Where to begin. Maybe on December 24, 1865, when a group of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee convened to found the Ku Klux Klan in a state that still boasts slave markets and plantations open to tourists. Maybe, most recently, on Jan. 7, when five Memphis cops beat to death unarmed 29-year-old Black man Tyre Nichols. Or, in the long, often racist period between, this May, when Tennessee, with its already egregious history of discriminatory education, became one of 44 states in a revisionist-veering nation to essentially seek to erase black history by passing a Prohibited Concepts In Instruction law that bans the teaching of CRT (which isn’t taught) or anything about white privilege, systemic racism or unconscious bias, all of which could lead to school districts losing state funding while simultaneously failing to reflect the reality many kids are living—never mind Moms For Liberty frantically scouring school materials to root out stories of MLK and Ruby Bridges and other “scary” signs of a “culture reset,” Fox pundits warning of math classes hiding a “Trojan horse” of CRT and, for good evangelical measure, banning porn and drag shows in the name of “child safety.”
Given…everything—the nation’s totalitarian slant, the eagerness of Tennessee to join the let’s-ban-everything-that-makes-us-even-a wee-bit-uneasy mania, the fact it’s still (admittedly minimalist) Black History Month—the petty, lib-owning move to censor Justin Pearson for his pride of ancestry didn’t go over well, especially when news outlets noted the “bipartisan and unanimously approved rules for House decorum and dress attire” don’t exist, but are traditionally left up to the House Speaker. It didn’t help when GOP pols tried to cover their racism by citing a “precedent” set by well-respected former Speaker and late black Democrat Lois DeBerry, who once chided one of them for not wearing a tie. To their claim to “honor (her) memory by how we look,” critics snapped, “Keep Lois DeBerry’s name out of your mouth.” They argued she’d never have shown such disrespect to a colleague, she’d have celebrated the cultural history of the dashiki, and besides it was never the issue: “Attempts to exert control over young, Black, male lawmakers who (have) the temerity to look different and be unafraid to raise their voices against the power structure are.”
As others noted of a “vile House of Un-representatives” where “privilege is more important than breathing,” “That’s a whole lot of words to say we’re racists,” or, “We ran out of hoods.” Also: “Jesus didn’t wear a tie,” “Did you make that no dashiki rule before or after seeing the guy on the House floor wearing a dashiki?” “People of color are not pets to be policed or punished when they don’t behave as you see fit,” “If you don’t like rules from the people who keep changing the rules when one feels mildly uncomfortable—you’re scared of education, and now shirts?” “If this is what gets you riled up, maybe y’all aren’t fit to (do) a job that requires finding common ground,” and, “Ask yourself what the rules really do and who they serve before you tell people to follow them.” Pearson himself joined in: If they care about DeBerry’s legacy “let’s see them put forward legislation for justice,” “taking power over people’s agency is a theme of this body,” and discrimination means “saying there’s only one type of person that needs to be here.” “This doesn’t have anything to do with a dashiki,” he charges. “It’s about who’s wearing it. It’s about us being here.”
“We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”—Malcolm X, who was assassinated Feb. 21, 1965
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