“Sucker punch somebody on a sidewalk
Carjack an old lady at a red light
Pull a gun on the owner of a liquor store
Ya think it’s cool, well, act a fool if ya like
Cuss out a cop, spit in his face
Stomp on the flag and light it up
Yeah, ya think you’re tough
Well, try that in a small town
See how far ya make it down the road
‘Round here, we take care of our own
You cross that line, it won’t take long
For you to find out, I recommend you don’t
Try that in a small town.”
— Jason Aldean, “Try That In A Small Town”
Yeah, I grew up with the sentiment of that song in a very small town, smaller than the one I live in now is or was at the time of my childhood. It’s an insular way of thinking and one with a very dark side. To the folks espousing it, who are, by the way, always white, it sounds prideful and full of self-determination. But it is really about creating an us-versus-them world. It ripples with threatened violence, this idea of “taking care of our own.” Why else introduce the idea of having a gun? And I don’t believe for a minute that it’s about unity or acceptance because I saw all the evidence a thousand times over in my little town in the middle of Indiana growing up. I see it here now, in this place that I’ve adopted as home and a place that I love. It’s a small town with a big heart but also with just as much of a troubled past of segregation and bias toward whiteness as any other place across the country, north and south. (The north has always had segregation — it’s just more hidden and subversive.)
Of course Aldean has every right to put his song out there. Maybe it even serves as something good because it sparks a conversation about our troubled country that, while full of freedom and caring for one another, harbors a dark underbelly of prejudice that was there from the beginning when our forefathers owned slaves, a legacy that has not been obliterated with a violent civil war, a Civil Rights movement, or nearly 250 years of independence and supposed freedom.
Because you have to ask, freedom for who? That commodity is disproportionately unequal among us and always has been. The way of keeping it thus involves a long history of violence, including lynchings, riots, fire bombings, and threats. It also includes a whole host of laws and ordinances meant to keep “those people” from voting, living where they choose, and gaining education. In essence, doing anything to keep them from gaining power.
We like to think that here in the 21st Century we’ve achieved some sort of color blindness, reached a time where prejudice against our Black brethren is behind us. We prefer to think of it as something in our rear view mirror. However, it is not any more past us than the idea of Fascism, which is very much alive and well in the world despite a world war fought and millions of people killed in the process in order to eradicate it. We need only look at the disproportionate number of Black people harassed while going about their daily lives merely for the fact of being Black. And that there are still active efforts in many parts of the country to curtail their right to vote, to gain a foothold up the economic ladder. No, racism still lives and breathes among us.
Aldean’s song simply makes me sad that we are still, as a people, telling ourselves these self-righteous untruths and foisting them off as a source of pride and brotherly love. His song, while true that it says what many people feel, is the promotion of a sorry myth handed down generation after generation that continues to unbind us and split us into factions of fury and hatred. It promotes a world view that sets one against the other, void of reaching out or any self-examination about the causations of our dysfunction as a society.
For whatever else is true, one thing is surely obvious. That we are all in this together for the long run, regardless of our skin color, our political beliefs, our circumstances. Telling ourselves a sad story of self-preservation with hidden dogwhistles about race and class only perpetuates our promotion of racism and violence. We are responsible for this path and where we are today. It is not some mysterious Boogieman who has wrought the violence or inequality in our midst. It is us. And we can only overcome these past and present injustices by deep self-reflection and a commitment to a world where violence toward the “other” is anathema to freedom.
I love the small town where I grew up, but what it did to some of its citizens and the ideas that Aldean’s song promotes sickens me. I long to live in a better, saner, more inclusive and loving place than the world he describes, where my Black neighbors’ lives and prosperity is valued equally with my own.