I can’t shake how ambivalent I feel about the word “community” these days. When we use it, we’re usually talking about an identity group. We use terms like “the Black community” and “the LGBTQ+ community” to group people together who beyond identity might have no personal and interpersonal bonds. As if it were enough to share an identity with someone to be in community with them.
The word has also become a commodity for corporations, non-profits, egotistical activists, and social media spiritual gurus looking to make profit off of an increasingly conscious society.
“We’re a community! Don’t forget to donate in the link below.”
What, then, defines a community, if it’s not (just) shared identities? Sometimes to make myself feel better I like to think the best kind of community is made up of shared values. If we both care about the fact that polar ice caps are melting and natural disasters are becoming increasingly acute due to corporate-driven climate change, it’s a lot easier to have a conversation, to sit in a room together, to be public in our affections by typing out hearts under each other’s social media posts.
When I am feeling bitter and nasty I sit in all the moments someone from my “community” has wronged me. The three times I got called a maricon in the same Dominican neighborhood in New York. The time a group of non-Black queer people of color sat around talking about how they’d never date a Black man because Black gay men are too macho to offer anything more than a good fuck. That time another queer Black Latinx person saw me in a mesh shirt and said, “oh, wow. You really are queer. I thought you were just pretending.”
Is community, then, a matter of perspective? A refracted experience?
But really. Really. When I’m not being sentimental. When I’m not trying to sound so intellectual I can’t see too far out my own ass. I look around me and recognize that my sense of community need not be based off extremes. I don’t need to agree with everyone in my community. I might not even get along with them sometimes. Sometimes my community is made up of people I put up with. Friends I only see twice a year but would run to support if they really needed me. That neighbor I see in my building who offers unwarranted warmth every time I see her. Family who always manage, even when they’re trying their very best, to exude anti-Black rhetoric handed down to them by generations of mental, spiritual, and material colonization.
When I stop feeling so defensive I also recognize it feels good to be in space with people of shared identities. I love talking about food with other Dominicans. It feels amazing to be in a room with Black folks from all over the diaspora talking about instances our history and culture intersect. And there is a sense of relief I feel entering a designated queer space.
But I have to remind myself that community isn’t only about the moments that feel good. It’s not always about aligning our values and identities perfectly like we’re ticking off boxes. And it most certainly isn’t something I want to let corporations and fraudulent leaders define for me or my people.
Even in the context of advocating for our collective rights, we could add more nuance to how we approach community building. In a 1989 interview, June Jordan says, “It occurs to me that much organizational grief could be avoided if people understood that partnership in misery does not necessarily provide partnership for change: when we get the monsters off our backs all of us may want to run in very different directions.” Jordan pushes us beyond a facile definition of community based (only) in shared identity or struggle, to consider what kinds of communities we might create if we centered values and shared visions of the future as building blocks of collective living. What if instead of the LGBTQ+ community we defined ourselves as the “Trans people deserve equitable access to health care” community? What if instead of the “NYC Dominican Community” we called ourselves “Dominican immigrants deserve the right to safe and affordable housing” community? How might we regard each other if we’re being clear about what it is that we want, not just what we don’t want?
Earlier this winter my nosy-yet-warm neighbor stopped me on my way to another activity I was anxious to get to. She asked me about my back pain, which had landed me in the hospital last summer. How I was managing my stress. How I was getting along with winter. “I thought you moved, I hadn’t seen you in a while,” she said. And more than her words what moved me was the timid joy in her voice knowing I was okay.
When I’m feeling hopeful I think there is still hope. I look at my social media following and at my family pictures and my text history and my neighbors and feel, well it must be true. We must really need each other still.
Alejandro Heredia is a queer Afro-Dominican writer and community organizer born in Santo Domingo and raised in The Bronx. He is a 2018 VONA/Voices fellow and 2019 Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium Fellow. Myriam Gurba selected Alejandro’ s chapbook, You’re the Only Friend I Need, as the winner of the 2019 Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook Contest. The book was published in summer 2021. Alejandro’ s work has been featured in Auburn Avenue Magazine, La Galeria Magazine, No Dear Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Hunter College.