Dr. Jessica Johnson: ‘Us vs. them’ mentality hinders racial progress

Jason Aldean’s controversial country hit “Try That in a Small Town” climbed to No. 1 on Billboard’s all-genre singles chart this week. If you’ve been following the headlines of what many critics and academics have said about the lyrics, you know that Aldean has been in the middle of a heated culture wars debate since mid-July. The song was taken off Country Music Television, which prompted many of Aldean’s supporters to claim it was an attempt to “silence” him. While the initial war of words on social media has quelled somewhat, Aldean’s track remains the focus of a contested discussion regarding what encompasses an authentic American identity.

The music video of “Try That in a Small Town” is still available to view on YouTube, as well as one with lyrics only. I was actually surprised that comments on both videos had not been turned off, which is sometimes the case for what is considered overly contentious material. One woman who identified herself as Black “from small town Georgia” commented on the lyric video and stated that she was a fan of Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” and did not think “Try That in a Small Town” had racist lyrics. One person who responded to her concurred except regarding the description of “good ol’ boys” in the sixth verse.

Being a Georgia native from Athens, a small college town home to the University of Georgia Bulldogs, I grew up wary of the term “good ol’ boys” due to many in the African American community associating it with southern White men who had racist views. A “good ol’ boy” was considered someone who proudly displayed the Confederate flag or could have been a secret member of the Ku Klux Klan. It was a divisive term, especially for Black elders who had lived through the latter period of the Jim Crow era.

Singing about “good ol’ boys,” however, was not what drew the most intense criticism for Aldean. It was displaying the Columbia, Tennessee Maury County Courthouse in the original video where an 18-year-old Black male named Henry Choate was lynched in 1927. Choate was gruesomely murdered in a similar manner to James Byrd Jr., who was killed decades later in 1998 in Jasper, Texas. Three White men chained Byrd’s ankles to the back of a pickup truck and dragged him for almost three miles. Choate was also tied to the back of a car and dragged before being hanged.

Aldean heavily pushed back against accusations that he was promoting a “pro-lynching song” and claimed on Twitter that he was emphasizing the strength of community where people once looked out for their neighbors. He also maintained that he was not pushing gun violence as critics have pointed to the verse where he sings, “Got a gun that my granddad gave me.” As we all know, interpretation of music can be very subjective, and from what I can tell, the intense backlash directed toward “Try That in a Small Town” has a lot to do with the choice to use the Maury County Courthouse as a video backdrop. I have not read anything where Aldean said he knew the history behind this location, but since it was the site of a lynching during a time when racism still had a firm stranglehold on the South, it triggers feelings of hostility for many.

“Try That in a Small Town” just shed additional light on the fierce political and cultural polarization in our nation. Our constant “us versus them” narrative is the primary obstacle to unity, which I think is particularly sad since we are a few weeks away from the 60th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that he gave during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While addressing racial injustice and the systemic inequities during the civil rights movement, King still referred to everyone as “God’s children,” and he urged marchers to go back to Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, many who were from small rural towns, to find “redemptive” ways to end suffering.

Aldean was born in Macon, Georgia, where close to 21% of the population lives in poverty today. Macon, along with many smaller southern cities, needs the redemptive strategies that King mentioned, but our “us versus them” mentality continues to hinder the racial and economic progress he envisioned. Imagine if we viewed one another as fellow children of God and diligently worked by faith as King urged to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” If we were at this milestone, Aldean would have a different song to sing.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter @JjSmojc. Her opinion does not necessarily represent the views of The Lima News or its owner, AIM Media.