The danger of “small town” thinking
Swearengin is an author, emotional & spiritual well-being coach, podcaster and content creator through his social media presence as Unconventional Pastor Paul. He talks religion and politics at times joined by his wife Ashley, a former elected official and community leader. Find him at Pastor-Paul.com.
Recently, I was taken aback by the need of many to defend country singer Jason Aldean's song Try That in a Small Town. Some spoke out against the song as a racist celebration of the type of vigilante violence once prevalent throughout the Jim Crow confederate south (you can see my video commentaries here and here.) Those defenders took a song that had languished on the ratings charts and drove it swiftly to the top.
However, the song's menacing lyric, "see how far you can get down the road" may have found an answer in the Montgomery, Alabama boat dock incident - now known euphemistically as the "Alabama Sweet Tea Party." Perhaps you've seen the video of a group of white men from a pontoon boat attacking a black boating officer. It did not go well for the white boaters as a large number of black Alabamans were able to get "far down the road" by jumping, sprinting and even swimming to the officer's defense.
For me, this incident, in light of that song and its vigorous defense, reverberated with the biblical concept of those "who live by the sword, die by it." Could it be that when we celebrate the idea of vigilante violence, we may find violence visited upon us? Particularly when we disregard that violence often becomes the only perceived recourse when historically oppressed peoples become fed up with injustice.
At a time when our culture wars include the teaching of American history in schools, it might be worth examining this song and incident as an indicator that we need a robust discussion of wrestling with the worst parts of our history, rather than feeling defensive about them?
This history is very real. My own father grew up in a small midwestern town the type of which were known as "Sundown Towns." Each main entrance to that small town had signs warning "'N-word' (pejorative term for black person,) don’t let the sun go down on your heels in (name of town.”) The signs implied a threat to "see how far you get down the road" for anyone planning an overnight stay without fitting into the homogenous norm of those who "take care of our own."
Sadly, when we forget such a history - or act defensive to it - we can perpetuate those mindsets even today. Years ago, I was sharing with a friend concerns about decades of poverty and economic division in our home city of Fresno, CA.“I love it here,” he responded, “I always tell people that Fresno’s a small town with great people who take care of each other" (note: this was his exact response, I didn't tweak that to parallel with the song.)
I reminded my friend that Fresno actually is a city of more than 500,000 people, not a small town. I also reminded him that, in large part due to racial redlining (historically forbidding people of certain races from purchasing land or living beyond a "red line" drawn on a map) some 350,000 of our citizens live in the southwestern parts of town and have life experiences far different than those who live on the northern end or in our northeastern white-flight suburb.
“I guess my view may be a little small,” my friend humbly concluded, admitting his "small town" mentality had caused blindness towards the plight of many of his fellow Fresnans. He is an example of how small town mindsets can insidiously affect a person who is not intentional about resisting it. And the melee in Alabama shows the impact of not.
It seems this all speaks to a need to remember our negative history, right alongside and as prevalent as that we view as glorious. It’s important that we don't forget what we're capable of doing when we become hard-hearted and closed down to the stories of others.
For many years, German children were required by law to learn about the holocaust and to visit a concentration camp memorial. The German people were heeding the warning attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Yet, many in Europe worry this history is slipping away from younger generations as a growing number of Europeans no longer are aware of this history and a rising numbers of those on each side of the Atlantic who deny its occurrence altogether.
Similar lack of remembrance is happening here in America. I live a mere five blocks from a place where, by executive order, many American citizens were placed behind barbed wire simply for being of Japanese heritage. One of the barracks of that camp stood and was utilized by a local business until just about 15 years ago. Yet, many Americans don't know the history pictured in a small memorial on that plot of land (now a traffic filled business district) of American soldiers, home on leave, visiting their families in that camp - people imprisoned as if they were not "our own" even as their offspring risked their lives for our country.
With this in our history, I struggle to understand why those of us in the more comfortable racial, economic, and religious classes aren't more willing to remember and openly discuss our past; both the good and the bad. Such discussions could cause us to rise from our seats when we see children of color mistreated at the border or we read about travel bans for particular religious groups and say "we will not repeat our history" and instead demand solutions from our leaders that account for the humanity of all people - even those we see as not "us."
I believe it should be a priority for us, especially if we consider ourselves a great country, to do the work of resisting a small town mindset so we can avoid the blinding insulation of living in a blinding bubble. Would it not be truly honoring our past heritage to demand we be a better people going forward? Could it be that an ongoing, honest assessment of ourselves will make us self aware and result in us being humanity loving people who don't need to be defensive about our past?
And could the result keep us from any compulsion to repeat old habits of threatening those we don't consider part of our "small town?"