Community for our Times
For me, there is something very old-fashioned about the word community.
It takes me back to the tiny Southern town where I spent most of my
childhood years. Of course, strictly speaking, it wasn't really a town
at all. It had no charter, no ordinances. What it did have was two road
signs, spaced about a quarter of a mile apart, two Mom-and-Pop groceries
(one of which also served as the post office), a Baptist church, a
school with an average graduating class of maybe a dozen, a lot of rural
families who lived on a network of dirt roads leading off in all
directions-and a powerful, shared feeling of belonging.
Part of that feeling, of course, was simple familiarity. Looking back,
I'm struck by how well people knew each other. I remember sitting at the
kitchen table in my aunt's house, which was positioned so as to provide
an unobstructed view of the road. Each time a vehicle rumbled by, my
aunt and uncle would look up, identify the driver by name and lineage,
and speculate with a kind of casual intimacy about where he or she might
be going and why.
Another part of that feeling was a sense of shared identity that came
from the fact that we were all pretty much alike. Just about everyone in
town had attended the local school, traded at one of the two stores,
attended the Baptist church. Another community about 15 miles away,
built around a Methodist church, provided the perfect foil-the them to
define our us.
But there were other thems as well. No one here was Black; no one was
Latino or Asian American; no one was openly homosexual; no one was
Methodist, much less Catholic or Muslim. Though much of this went
unspoken-unthought, even-it seems to me now that exclusion was as vital
as inclusion in defining who we were. Over the ensuing years, of course,
the place slowly changed. The school consolidated with its great rival.
(No more them, no more us.) Strangers moved in. Residents began to lock
their doors. It is, I suppose, a familiar rural American story with an
obvious moral about the erosion of community.
But that's not my point.
My point is that the kind of community we talk about today-especially on
college campuses like ours-has little in common with the kind of
community we mourn from yesteryear. That was then-this is now. Then,
most American communities were homogeneous and a bit ingrown. Having
lived it, I can tell you that the kind of familiarity I recall was
sometimes oppressive-bringing with it an expectation of conformity and a
quickness to judge.
What we seem to be striving for is an idealized version of what I
recall. A community where inclusion isn't enabled by its opposite, where
people can rejoice in their differences as well as their commonalities,
where everyone can share a sense of belonging. It's a kind of community,
I think, that may only be possible on a college campus, among the
idealistic and the young.
Maybe it's an impossible dream, even here, but the amazing thing is that
sometimes I think we almost get there.