Keep her name out of your mouth

Rep. Hawk’s disrespect for a fellow lawmaker’s attire profanes the words of a legendary leader — and misses her point

February 16, 2023 6:02 am
Rep. David Hawk, R-Greenville, addressing the attire of Memphis Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson in the House of Representatives on Feb. 9. 2023. (Tennessee General Assembly)

Rep. David Hawk, R-Greenville, addressing the attire of Memphis Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson in the House of Representatives on Feb. 9. 2023. (Tennessee General Assembly)

(Note: Rep. David Hawk has said that the late Rep. Lois DeBerry did publicly reprimand him for his attire, and not privately, as the column states.)

Last week, Republican Rep. David Hawk of Greeneville, chose to invoke the name of Lois DeBerry when he chastised newly seated Democratic Rep. Justin Pearson of Memphis.

At issue was Pearson’s attire, a crisply tailored black and white dashiki, which Hawk deemed inappropriate for the august House chambers. 

“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, among other remarks. 

Before we unpack this, let me offer my one-sentence commentary: Rep. Hawk, keep Lois DeBerry’s name out of your mouth. 

Screenshot from Rep. Justin Pearson's, D-Memphis, Twitter account.
Screenshot from Rep. Justin Pearson’s, D-Memphis, Twitter account.

DeBerry was only the second Black woman to be elected to the Tennessee General Assembly and the first to be elected by her colleagues to serve as House speaker pro tempore — meaning DeBerry ran the House when the speaker could not. When she died while still holding office in 2013, she was the longest-serving member of the House and commanded immense respect.

My first experience with DeBerry came in 1980 when I was 15. I had wrangled a job as a page to then-Democratic Senate Majority Leader Milton Hamilton. Every Monday, as soon as school was out, I beat feet to get to the Capitol in time for session to make copies for GOP Sen. Victor Ashe and keep Hamilton filled up on coffee. 

But from that season of my life, my most enduring memory is of DeBerry. Only eight years into her cutting-edge career, she strode down the middle of the halls at Legislative Plaza with a piercing stare, as if daring someone to step in her path while she was at full speed. 

She was only 35 then and cut a glamorous figure that left me intimidated and in awe: high-heeled boots, pencil skirts, large-framed glasses and perfectly coiffed hair. Clearly, her appearance told me, it was important to appear put-together and professional. She was always a sharp dresser with an intellect to match. 

Keeping that in mind, her comments to Hawk that he relayed as part of his speech made sense. 

“Lois DeBerry would remind us how we must have respect for this legislative body. And part of that respect is how you look and how you appear,” he said. 

“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, ‘Rep. Hawk, if you don’t have a tie on, you don’t get to walk in that door… ” 

I have some thoughts on last week’s episode that most likely take a very different path from the one taken by Hawk. 

First, as House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis, pointed out, DeBerry would never — never — have taken to the House floor to show such public disrespect towards a colleague over his or her appearance. Hawk alluded to this but somehow missed his own point when he said DeBerry talked with him about his attire privately. There’s no reason to call someone out as Hawk called out Pearson, other than to publicly shame.

Second, Hawk might have considered that DeBerry would think differently about what was appropriate dress depending on someone’s race, heritage or beliefs. 

It might have occurred to Hawk and other white male legislators that DeBerry comported herself with careful style and professionalism in part because her election came mere years after the apex of the American civil rights movement at a time when Black legislators in the South — and particularly Black women — were uncommon in the halls of power. Respectful treatment was not — and, apparently, is not — guaranteed.

It's not the suit: Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, in one of his trademark white suits at the Tennessee Capitol for the 2023 State of the State Address. (Photo: John Partipilo)
It’s not the suit: Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, in one of his trademark white suits at the Tennessee Capitol for the 2023 State of the State Address. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Perhaps, before Hawk popped off, he could have contemplated that February is Black History Month, that dashikis are customarily worn by men in West Africa, and Pearson was paying homage to the roots of many African-Americans. A tiny bit of research would have shown Hawk that dashikis have been worn in the U.S. since the 1960s civil rights era, and formal versions are worn by grooms during their weddings. 

Or, had Hawk really wanted to venture into the mind and values of DeBerry, he might have contemplated what her long career in civil rights and politics was about: empowering Black Tennesseans to take a full role in civic life. It could be that, by invoking DeBerry, he might have been trying to gain cover over accusations his remarks were racist. 

I feel certain DeBerry would have approved of Pearson and his dashiki, and she would have approved as well of another new House member, Rep. Justin Jones, D-Nashville, who is treated with no more respect by Republicans than Pearson, despite Jones habitually dressing in sharp white suits. 

Let’s be clear: Pearson’s dashiki isn’t the issue. Attempts to exert control over young, Black, male lawmakers — who have had the temerity to look different and to be unafraid to raise their voices against the power structure — are the real problem. 

I’d suggest Hawk take some time to meditate on what appearance represented to DeBerry, and he might, too, ruminate on his comments about showing respect — shaming a colleague is but one way through which House Republicans have shown only their disrespect for Pearson and Jones. 

In the meantime, he can keep the name of Lois DeBerry out of his mouth. 

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.