It is evident that there are aspects of
the dominant European-derived cultures which are perceived of as threatening:
groups seeking escape from them were well represented among the early settlers
in North America. Others have more recently sought to drop out and establish
alternative societies; the hippie communes of the 1960s, and the neo-African
and neo-Islamic colonies which have sprung up since the Civil Rights Movement
within the United States are examples of this. For the most part, such
breaks with the mainstream have been initiated by individuals who were
originally participants themselves, and who have only subsequently become
disenchanted by it.
Perhaps the most vigorous rejection of the dominant culture, however,
is typified by those groups who have been insulating themselves from the
world around them from the very beginning, i.e., have not grown
as societies alternative to, and derived from, the mainstream. Whereas
none of the 18th and 19th century immigrant utopian societies survives
today, and very few of the dropout communes, people such as the Amish or
the Doukhobors continue to maintain their isolation successfully here in
One ethnic minority which belongs in this latter category is the Roma
population, popularly, though inaccurately, called Gypsies. Numbering about
one million in North America, until very recently Roma have existed unobtrusively
here, seldom attracting national attention and in fact not even recognized
by most of mainstream society as real people at all. Commenting on this,
journalist Nikki Meredith wrote that "the secrecy of the Gypsies makes
the Mafia look like an open society" (Meredith 1983:9). Her choice for
comparison is revealing.
The history of the Romani people can hardly be
matched in terms of oppression and injustice. Since the very entry into
Europe from Asia seven and a half centuries ago, Roma have been the victims
of slavery and genocide, transportation and torture. No other single human
population has endured so widely and so consistently the suffering of the
Rom. At first incarceration, then expulsion, sterilization, and finally
extermination were techniques employed by the Nazis to deal with Gypsies,
treatment civilized individuals now regard in retrospect with horror. Yet
within the past three decades--since the late 1960s--all four have been
proposed by different European governments as means of solving the "Gypsy
problem." And, with the rise in ethnic nationalism since the collapse of
socialist governments in eastern Europe, anti-Gypsy sentiment has risen
with increased vigor.
Although there were two Romani transportees with Columbus on his second
voyage in 1498, Roma began to reach the Americas in any numbers in the
sixteenth century, shipped here to work as slave labor in the plantations.
Others came to the United States at the end of the last century, fleeing
slavery in Europe (Hancock, 1987; Nunes, 1996). However, as victims of
discriminatory immigration policy beginning in 1883, they were turned away
at Ellis Island, and even those who managed to come in across the Mexican
or Canadian borders met anti-Gypsy laws, some of which were still on the
books and being put into effect as recently as last year. No other ethnic
minority in the 1990s in this country has been the target of repressive
laws which named them specifically and forbade (or require a license for)
them to establish homes or to work in different counties and states. No
other ethnic minority has special police bureaus monitoring its movements
or specialists compiling a computerized files of its names, addresses,
Facts such as these contrast starkly with the idealized picture which
the gadjikano, or non-Gypsy, population has of Gypsies. One of the
items in the Romani Archives in Austin is a lapel-button bearing the slogan
"Free the Gypsies." This, along with another with the wording "Free the
Unicorns," was on sale in a novelty gift shop. Its intent was obviously
to amuse; after all in the popular mind, Gypsies are the very epitome
of freedom. There are hundreds of literary pieces, either novels or poems,
as well as a great number of songs, which have a Gypsy theme; and the theme
has overwhelmingly to do with freedom: freedom from nine-to-five jobs,
freedom from having to attend to personal hygiene, freedom from sexual
restrictions, freedom from the burden of material possessions, freedom
from responsibility, freedom from the requirements of the law.
Dishonesty is also a characteristic fundamental to the Roma stereotype;
Isabel Fonseca (1995:15) cautioned her readers that "Gypsies lie. They
lie a lot--more often and more inventively than other people". This assumption,
of course, simply reflects the imbalance of control over Romani identity,
since statements originating from Roma which are not what the investigator
wants to hear, can simply be dismissed as "lies."
Antigypsyism is nothing new. In a letter to George
Sand a hundred and thirty years ago, which might have been written today
(reproduced in Conard, 1929:309), Gustav Flaubert commented on this and
offered an explanation for it:
[I visited] a camp of Gypsies at Rouen ... they excite the
the bourgeois even though inoffensive as sheep ... that hatred is linked
to something deep and complex; it is found in all orderly people. It is
the hatred that they feel for the bedouin, the heretic, the philosopher,
the solitary, the poet, and there is fear in that hatred.
When Czechoslovakia was being constituted in 1922, its criterion
for recognizing its various ethnic minorities rested upon whether they
were represented by a nation state or not. Thus the ethnic Hungarians,
for example, qualified because of the existence of the country of Hungary.
Roma did not, despite being one of the largest minority populations in
Czechoslovakia, because there was no Romani homeland. Indeed, had
more been known about the Indian origin of Roma, and if Indian administrators
had been approached for intervention, things might have been different
today. After all, it was India who helped sponsor the First
World Romani Congress in Britain in 1971 and who was instrumental in the
achievement of Roma representation at the United Nations. But instead,
false and biased history has been relied upon to define "Gypsies," such
as the following account by Hungary’s one-time leading specialist on Roma
József Vekerdi, who stated that
The Gypsies’ ancestors began leaving northwest India probably
about the seventh century AD. They are characterized as robbers,
murderers, hangmen and entertainers. These professions were prescribed
for them by the rulers of the Hindu caste system. Thus they belonged
to the so-called ‘wandering criminal tribes’ of India and were obliged
to lead a parasitic way of life. Among the numerous outcast groups,
they occupied the lowest rung on the social scale (Vekerdi, 1988:14).
Not only is the time of the exodus too early by four centuries,
but the identity of the pre-Roma population is merely a guess based on
Vekerdi’s biased preconceptions, and his classification wandering criminal
tribes is taken from 19th century colonial terminology in the British
Raj. The damage done by such authorities, who give their stamp of
academic approval to government policy, and who foster antigypsyism in
the press—and hence at the popular level—is incalculable.
In an earlier article I demonstrated that the foolish and offensive
idea that the Romani people are devoid of the concepts of ownership,
truth, &c., has been fostered by writers whose "evidence"
for this is supported by their confident, though naive, assertions that
words for these things are lacking in the Romani language (Hancock, 1998).
The same essay addresses the equally silly claim that we as a people think
only in the present, and as a result have no means of constructing the
future tense in our language. Along with statements such as "Gypsies
don’t feel pain like other people," or "Gypsies actually enjoyed
the punishments meted out to them during slavery" (both found in Hancock,
1987), or that we are dirty because of an "innate fear of water", or that
we prefer to live next to garbage dumps, given a choice (the
basis for at least three cartoons in the Texas Romani Archives) when it
is usually the only place the local borough council will provide.
Such observations succeed only in reinforcing a "gypsy" image which is
diametrically opposed to the Romani reality. Since Roma have traditionally
lacked a voice in the mainstream domain, such statements have been allowed
to pass unchallenged.
Cause for concern lies in the fact that this anti-Roma bias is especially
evident in children’s literature, and is therefore aimed specifically at
a population whose social attitudes, which will carry them through the
rest of their lives, are in process of being formed. The August,
1996, issue of Disney Adventures, a magazine for children, wrote
about a condition called "gypsyitis," the symptoms of which are "an urge
to run away from it all and dance among the dandelions" and being "footloose
and fancy-free." In her defense, the editor of the magazine, Phyllis
Erlich, replied to our complaint that we were over-reacting, that it was
in fact "a positive portrayal of the Gypsy spirit." Exposure
to this image is pervasive: in Black’s Gypsy Bibliography, which
includes nothing later than 1914, there are 133 ballads, 199 plays, 351
novels, and 262 poems listed which have been written about, or include,
Gypsies in the English literary tradition, almost all of which present
the Gypsy in fanciful terms. The reality stands in such stunning
contrast, that it is hard to believe that the one derives from the other.
In my book The
Pariah Syndrome (Hancock 1987), I document the facts of Romani
history from the perspective of the Roma being a targeted population. What
emerges is a picture of centuries of almost ceaseless oppression. Whatever
periods of freedom may have existed during that time were short-lived,
and were the result of the idealizing of the Gypsy population by the writers
and philanthropists of the time, people whom Dougherty, in his study of
the Gypsy image in literature (1980:273), called "superficial sentimentalists
or genteel snobs looking for a feudal relic to coddle and patronize."
Without doubt, there exists an extraordinary discrepancy between the
real and the perceived condition of the Roma. When we examine the
reasons for this, a number of possibilities present themselves. Part of
the stereotype includes the belief that Gypsies are a "mysterious"
people with an unknown, perhaps otherworldly, past. This is alluded to
repeatedly in the content and even the titles of books and articles
about Gypsies. Roma themselves remain a mystified population, "full
of riddles and confusions, and surrounded by an aura of secrecy", as one
author sees it (Shcherbakova, 1984:1). This would suggest that the
reason lies simply in ignorance of the facts. And yet a great deal is known
about Romani origins and history.
A double standard clearly operates: for example it is a fact that
the vast majority of human populations lack their own written history,
and so Roma are not noteworthy in this respect—but attention is drawn to
it nevertheless, most recently in the program notes accompanying a national
tour of Roma musical ensembles from Europe. Because of this persistent
desire to mystify and otherize, an unreal history has emerged constructed
by outsiders, and which is perpetuated from generation to generation in
both fictional and non-fictional literature. Brown (1985:22) has elaborated
Although the Indian origin of the Gypsies has been proved linguistically
by the fact that Romani, their language, was derived from Sanskrit, most
nineteenth-century writers preferred to promote an enigma. Even today,
Gypsies remain an anomaly to the degree that their migrations which began
about AD 1000, escape the usual religious, biologic, geographic, economic
and political structures used to explain migration as a sociological phenomenon.
But the nineteenth century actively cultivated popular legends and theories
that obfuscated what little ‘scientific’ explanations existed. These
legends ... represented an effort by civilized Europeans to justify the
sense of primitivism inspired in them by Gypsies, [who] were the lost link
with the ancient and hermetic wisdom of the East. The primitive and
inexplicable natural force that determined their wandering instinct was
thought to be superior to and stronger than modern industrial progress.
Roma activists all report otherizing as a common characteristic
on the part of their interviewers who—fully aware of their ethnicity—persist
unconsciously in addressing them as "they" rather than "you," placing us
at a distance even when in our presence. The same interviewers too, will
often include the word "still" in their questions, for example "do they
still arrange their marriages?," assuming an anachronistic culture measured
against more "modern," i.e. non-Roma, norms. One encyclopedia
entry on Gypsies is written entirely in the past tense, distancing
us in time as well as in space (Walker, 1983).
It has been documented for over two centuries that
Roma trace their linguistic and cultural heritage to India, but following
that initial revelation, attempts to fill in the details have been mostly
fanciful, less often approaching plausibility, and it has only been
in the past very few years that a likely explanation has begun to emerge.
We know that the Roma have been made up of many different groups of
people from the very beginning, and have absorbed outsiders throughout
their history. Because they arrived in Europe from the East, they
were thought by the first Europeans to be from Turkey or Nubia or Egypt,
or any number of vaguely acknowledged non-European places, and they were
called, among other things, Egyptians or ’Gyptians, which
is where the word "Gypsy" comes from. In some places, this
Egyptian identity was taken entirely seriously, and was no doubt borrowed
by the early Roma themselves; In the 15th century James the Fifth of Scotland
concluded a treaty with a local Romani leader pledging the support of his
armies to help recover "Little Egypt" (an old name for Epirus, on the Greek-Albanian
coast) for them. Another façade adopted by the first Roma
in Europe was that of religious penitents, which allowed them to carry
documents ostensibly signed by the Pope and by King Ladislaus requesting
their protection. But this was not a uniquely Romani ploy, and was
probably inspired by various European migrant populations such as the Rubins,
the Coquillarts, the Convertis or the Golliards in France, who were doing
the same thing.
It was not until the second half of the 18th century that scholars in
Europe began to realize that the Romani language in fact came from India.
Basic words, such as some numerals and kinship terms, and names for body
parts, actions and so on, were demonstrably Indian. So—they
concluded—if the language were originally Indian, its speakers very likely
must be as well.
Once they realized this, their next questions were the obvious ones:
if Roma were indeed from India, when did they leave, and why, and are there
Roma in that country?
An answer seemed to be ready-made in a book called
the Shah Nameh (the Book of Kings), an historical account of the
life and times of Bahram Gur, a fifth-century Persian shah. It contained
an account of a gift which was made by the Maharaja of Sindh, in India,
to Bahram Gur’s court, of ten thousand musicians. After a year, the
story continued, the musicians had all disappeared.
Nineteenth century scholars thought that this explanation answered many
of their questions, especially because there is still today a population
of Indian origin living in the Middle East called the Doms, and who speak
a language also readily traceable to India. The Roma in Europe, they
reasoned, were part of that same early population who kept on moving westwards
leaving the Doms behind in Asia, and so the Shah Nameh account continues
to be repeated, uncritically, in even the most recent books about Roma.
Although this story is still finding favor with journalists and others,
few academics at the end of the 20th Century believe it any more, because
we have a much greater understanding now of Indian languages and history.
Romani and the language of the Doms (Domari), while both ultimately
Indian, are very different from each other; their shared vocabulary is
less than ten percent and even demonstrably cognate Indian forms are fewer
than two thirds. The similarities which do exist are because they
are both Indian—just as they exist between Romani and Gujarati, say, or
Romani and Bengali—and not because they were once the same language.
There are also linguistic features in Romani which tell us that its original
speakers must have left India in the 11th century or later, and not six
hundred years earlier in the 5th Century. And when we also examine
the words which Romani adopted from other languages along the migratory
route, we can get an idea of who the early Roma came into contact with,
which in turn tells us where that must have happened. An example
can be taken from one language called Burushaski. There are
a handful of words from this language, such as those for "pull" and "how
many," but it is only spoken in a tiny area high in the mountain passes
out of northern India, in the Hindu Kush. Another language spoken
near here is Phalura, which has also provided Romani with a number
of words, such as "son-in-law", "walnut" and "sleep". The fact that
they are only spoken in such small and specific areas and nowhere
else, and keeping in mind what the linguistic picture must have been like
a millennium ago, we have to accept that this was the place through which
the first Roma left India.
Clues like this help to answer when and where, but not who or why.
However, if we look at the vocabulary of Romani, we find indications of
a specifically military history. For example, the most common word
for someone who is not a Rom is gadjo, and this comes from an old
Indian word gajjha, meaning "civilian" or "non-military person"
("civilians" is still used by Roma to refer to non-Roma in parts of Europe,
e.g. in Slovenia and Italy). Another word for a non-Rom is das,
which originally meant a prisoner of war, and which means "slave" in modern
Hindi and Panjabi. Yet another is gomi, from a word for "one who
has surrendered", presumably as a captive taken in war. It has the
same form and meaning in Bangani, a modern Indian language. A fourth word
for a non-Romani person is goro, which in some Indian languages,
such as Hindi, means ""pale-skinned person," but which in others, e.g.
Sindhi, means "captive" or "slave." The words for "sword", "battlecry",
"spear" and "gaiters" are also all Indian, and all belong to the military
semantic domain. A further possible connection with the Rajputs is
the fact that their ancient clan emblems, symbols of the sun and the moon,
survive among some Roma in Europe today with a similar function (Sutherland,
1975:125). With these kinds of clues, the next step was to discover
what soldiers, if any, were in the Hindu Kush in the 11th century.
At the very beginning of that century, India came under attack by the
Muslim general Mahmud of Ghazni, who was trying to push Islam eastwards
into India, which was mainly Hindu territory. The Indian rulers had
been assembling troops to hold back the Muslim army for several centuries
already, deliberately drawing their warriors from various populations who
were not Aryan. The Aryans had moved into India many centuries before,
and had pushed the original population down into the south, or else had
absorbed them into the lowest strata of their own society which began to
separate into different social levels or castes, called varnas (colors)
in Sanskrit, each one higher than the other, with the Brahmins or holy
men at the very top, then the Kshatriyas or warriors below them, the Vaisnas
or merchants and producers below them, and the non-Aryan Shudras at the
bottom. It was forbidden to marry, or even touch, a person who was
not from the same caste as oneself.
The Aryans regarded Aryan life as being more precious
than non-Aryan life, and would not risk losing it in battle. So the
troops which were assembled to fight the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni were
all drawn from non-Aryan populations, and made honorary members of the
Kshattriya or Warrior caste and allowed to wear their battledress and insignia.
They were taken from many different ethnic groups who spoke a wide variety
of languages and dialects. Some were Lohars and Gujjars, some were
Tandas, some were Rajputs, who descended from non-Indian peoples who had
come to live in India some centuries before, and some may also also have
been Siddhis, Africans from the East African coast who fought as mercenaries
for both the Hindus and the Muslims. Together they made up the Kshattriya
warriors who moved within the far northern parts of India between the years
1001 and 1027 to try to prevent Ghazni’s Islamic troops from entering their
land. But their resistance was ultimately not successful, and northern
India was eventually occupied by the Muslims, and Islam remains the major
religion throughout the area today.
This composite army moved out of India through the mountain passes and
west into Persia, battling with Muslim forces all along the eastern limit
of Islam. While this is to an extent speculative, it is based upon
sound linguistic and historical evidence, and provides the best-supported
scenario to date. We can even more cautiously venture to establish
a particular year for the exodus out of India; of the seventeen Ghaznavid
raids between AD 1001 and AD 1027, only two of them took place in the area
which matches the linguistic evidence, and the second of these was the
Muslims’ greatest defeat. These took place in Kashmir, in 1013 and
1015, and the Ghaznavids were chased westwards out of the Hindu Kush.
Those involved in unraveling Romani history are not only examining the
linguistic and historical material they do have, but are also looking
at earlier hypotheses in an attempt to validate or dismiss them by process
of elimination. Thus we cannot place the migration of the ancestors of
the Roma out of India before the 11th century, because of certain linguistic
characteristics which didn’t exist at an earlier time. If we are
reluctant to accept those things which point to a military history—the
original meanings of the various words for non-Gypsy, for instance, or
the apparent retention of Rajput clan insignia amongst some Vlax Romani
populations in Europe today, we are left having to accept that these parallels
are merely coincidence, and having to provide alternative explanations.
And while it has been suggested that the Romani migration consisted of
many different groups leaving India at different times over a period of
centuries, we must then explain how such groups, separated by vast distances
of time and space, managed to relocate and reunite into the one population
which eventually entered Europe. We can also venture to specify the
route taken out of India, not only because of the non-Indic lexical adoptions
which are found in Romani, but because of what we don’t find: significant
representations from Semitic or Turkic languages, for instance. And
since there were only a few roads through the mountains out of India, the
geographical possibilities are narrowed down even further.
Because Islam was not only making inroads into India to the east, but
was also being spread westwards into Europe, this conflict carried the
Indian troops—the early Roma—further and further in that direction, until
they eventually crossed over into south-eastern Europe about the year 1300.
Marushiakova & Popov (1997:63) write of the Roma coming into Europe
as auxiliary detachments with the Turkish armies, demonstrating that their
military identity had not been lost even three centuries after leaving
Taking all of the evidence to hand into consideration,
the likeliest scenario is that Romani gradually came together into the
one language of one people outside of India, in the period spent
between India and Europe, emerging from a composite military koïné
into a stabilized linguistic cluster, which then subsequently fragmented
into different dialects within Europe after arrival there.
Not all of the Kshattriya warriors left India. Some of those who
remained continue to be known as Rajputs, which means "sons of kings,"
and while they see themselves today as true descendants of the Kshattriya
caste, the Brahmins delight in reminding them that they were drawn from
the Shudras. Some populations in India which identify themselves
as Rajputs, such as the Banjara, also recognize that they are related to
the Roma outside of India, and make an effort to keep in contact with Romani
organizations in Europe and America.
One problem has been that, when the British were occupying India, they
applied the label gypsies in a broad way to numbers of nomadic groups
in that country who had nothing at all to do with real "Gypsies", i.e.
Roma. Only some of those populations are connected with the history
described here, and with the Roma throughout the world. But it has
had the misleading effect that Westerners have assumed a relationship which
isn’t there, and have even written books or produced documentary films
perpetuating the idea of such a connection.
From the very beginning, then, the Romani population has been made up
of various different peoples who have merged together over time.
As the ethnically and linguistically mixed occupational population from
India moved further and further away from its land of origin beginning
in the 11th century, so it began to acquire its own ethnic identity,
and it was at this time that the Romani language also began to take shape.
But the mixture of peoples and languages didn’t stop there, for as the
warriors moved northwestwards through Persia, it took words and grammar
from Persian, and no doubt absorbed new members too; and the same thing
happened in Armenia and in the Byzantine Empire, and has continued to happen
in Europe. In some instances, the mingling of small groups of Roma
with other peoples has resulted in such groups being absorbed into them
and losing their Romani identity; the Jenisch in Germany and Switzerland
are perhaps such an example. In others, it has been the outsiders
who have been absorbed, and who, in the course of time, have become
one with the Romani group.
In Europe, the Roma were either kept in slavery
in the Balkans (in territory which is today Romania), or else were
able to move on and up into the rest of the continent, reaching every northern
and western country by about 1500. In the course of time, as a result
of having interacted with various European populations, and being fragmented
into widely-separated groups, the Roma have emerged today as a continuum
of distinct ethnic groups constituting a larger whole. While non-Roma
specialists tend to classify these divisions according to linguistic criteria,
the same distinctions perceived within the Romani population are far more
complex, incorporating national and occupational as well as dialectal boundaries.
Origins of the Fictionalized Gypsy
A hundred and twenty years ago, Simson (1865:8)
called the fictitious image of the Gypsy as wanderer "very erroneous,"
and pointed out that "nomadic Gypsies constitute but a portion of the race,
and a very small portion of it." In 1902, American romanologist Albert
Sinclair wrote in his journal "How little people, even those who are much
interested, learn about the American Gypsies! They do not know they own
real estate, lend money, join the churches, how many or how few there are,
etc. In fact, they know little about them" (quoted in Salo 1993:42).
Okely has made the same point: "Gypsies do not travel about aimlessly,
as either the romantics or the anti-Gypsy suggest" (1983:125). Scholarly
treatments of Gypsies are numerous and readily available, and lack of information
cannot be the reason for the perpetuation of the myth. But the idea
that a lack of information exists has itself become a part of that myth.
The reasons for its persistence must, then, be sought elsewhere.
The contemporary, created Gypsy persona is the result of a dynamic which
got out of hand in the last century, and which then acquired a life of
its own. It was stimulated by a combination of the responses
to industrialization, and emerging 19th century ideas of racial hierarchy.
As mills, mines, factories and rail transportation transformed the land,
so perceptions of the pre-industrial, rural world of the earlier century
acquired a magical quality which was fostered in the poems and paintings
of the mid-1800s. This nostalgia idealized the world of the farmer
and the shepherd and of rural life; Gypsies were seen as the ultimate latter-day
bearers of this vanishing world, a remote population unsullied by civilization,
content to live in and from the fields and forests. Meanwhile,
western European powers were claiming large areas of the non-white world,
and becoming increasingly powerful and influential. Technology was
seen as being more of a mark of civilization than spirituality, and writers
of the age such as Darwin, Gobineau and Knox produced scientific treatises
ranking human groups in terms of their "development." These studies
were based upon classifications belonging to the emerging disciplines of
botany and zoology, but were being applied to human categories. The
notion that some "races" were more highly developed than others, and that
some of them exhibited "mixed" developmental characteristics due to genetic
interbreeding—invariably seen as having negative consequences—gave rise
to the idea of racial purity. From here it was but a short jump
to establishing the identity of the "True Romany, " i.e. the individual
who fit the epitomized persona, who caused no trouble, who didn’t want
"in," and who lived safely at a distance on fruit and game animals, and
the occasional vegetables stolen from the farmers’ fields, and who stayed
with his own kind. This was who became flesh and blood in the fiction
and (increasingly) the non-fiction of the day, and who is with us still.
This philosophy also allowed writers and policy-makers to dismiss
people called variously "mumpers" or "posh-rats" or "diddicois" or pikeys"
as an unwelcome social blot on the land, people of little or no Romani
blood who gave the True Romany a bad name. Such people did,
and do, indeed, constitute the greater part of the Gypsy population.
A millennium after leaving India as an already-mixed population, there
are no Roma anywhere in the world who are genetically pristine. The
concept itself is unproductive and unscientific, but it laid the foundation
for racial policies which, in the 20th century, led to the attempted extermination
of the entire global Romani population in the Holocaust. In the 1880s
an Anglo-American organization called the Gypsy Lore Society was established,
predictably having no Gypsy members, and the early numbers of its journal
contain the genealogies of Romani families (called "pedigrees," as though
the subjects were cocker spaniels) and contain articles glorifying and
glamorizing the True Romany.
While the misrepresentation of ethnic and social groups is challenged,
in the course of time, by members of those groups, this did not happen
in the case of Roma. Being a disenfranchized and unschooled population,
few were even aware of the Romani golem coming to life in the world of
the gadjé. Visitors with notebooks coming into Romani homes
were nothing new, and were tolerated one way or another. That they
were provided with misleading information is evident from an examination
of their published findings, as is the fact that, in the absence of detail,
they filled in their own later, from their imaginations. Both
Romani protective behavior, and the non-Romani response to it, continue
today. The image has become too deeply entrenched to ever be completely
More recently, there have been signs of a grudging
acknowledgment of the legitimacy of Romani identity and history, but a
resistance to it--as though it were driving away something more valuable.
Even when discounting the fictional image, it is reinforced by being repeated;
thus in an account in which none of the trappings of that image formed
a part of the reporter’s actual experience, they were alluded to in an
article in the Toronto Sun which appeared in the Spring of 1985
which began "Gypsy. Even the word is impossibly romantic. Dark eyes, crying
violins, and wanderlust. A life of pleasure and abandon. But the reality
... is vastly different." In August, 1986, one Boston newspaper ran a six-page
feature on one of that city’s Romani families, claiming on the first page
that to judge from their appearance, they could have easily been "Spanish,
or French, or Italian, or Irish", but by the second page calling them ...
glitter and gold, decked out in bright babushka of legend. They are
exotic women in colorful skirts, dancing in sensual swirls. They are dark
men with smoldering eyes. They are carefree spirits playing the tambourine.
The entire image is crowned with a halo of mystique, shrouded in a cloak
of mystery. And there is some truth to all of it" (Brink 1986:5).
A student of mine who was a journalism major came to me at the end of a
course I give on Romani history to thank me for what she had learned. However,
she admitted to some disappointment because I had made Gypsies become real
people for her. She preferred the image she had of them before taking
the class, she said.
It is clear that Gypsies give fledgling journalists a chance to exercise
their skills in creative fiction, but truth gets distorted considerably
in the process. Despite showing two pictures, one inside and one out, of
the house of the Romani-American family it discusses, another article is
entitled "Hustle, hustle aboard the caravan." Crystal balls, non-existent
in the community described, are alluded to in the headline, "Authorities
gaze into Gypsy con-game." The same clichéd association is
found in an article which appeared in March this year in the New York
Daily News entitled "New York Gypsies peer into their future: An ancient
culture debates joining the modern world." Despite its serious intent,
a twenty-minute documentary film about a Romani school in California closed
with the observation that "Although Gypsies still dance around the camp
fire, the fire is slowly flickering out as Gypsy life gradually fades into
oblivion ..." The film dealt with education, and it included no dancing
and no camp fires.
Most people still get their information about our people from books
rather than from first-hand experience. A surprising number
still don’t believe that we really exist. A letter to the editor
of The Daily Texan (for May 17th, 1976) protesting the use of the
word "gyp" in an article, received the printed reply that "‘gyp’ is not
an ethnic slur, for the simple reason that gypsies are not an actual people."
More recently, and for the same reason, a letter which appeared in The
Anchorage Daily News (for March 12th, 1999) condemning the same use
of "gyp" in a headline drew a number of letters in response: one from a
Gerry Godfrey maintained in part that
Perhaps Mr. Sewell does not know that the word ‘gyp’ deriving
from ‘gypsy’ is not the least bit a racial slur. Gypsies do not imply
a race or ethnicity, but rather a nomadic lifestyle.
And another from John G. Stevens said
Rich Sewell states that the term ‘gyp’ was a racial term that
offends Gypsies. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t racial slurs
supposed to be offensive towards a race? Last I checked, Gypsies weren’t
a race, but a rather unique lifestyle. Now most everyone knows that
the term ‘gyp’ is often used to describe being on the receiving end of
a shortcoming, hence to be ‘gypped.’ I’ve used it before, probably will
use it again, so have a lot of people I know.
Those journalists for whom we are real, and who do manage to win
the confidence of actual Roma, and thereby gain temporary entry into the
Romani environment, quickly find their preconceptions shaken. There are
no camp fires and tambourines, no crystal balls and violins. Yet their
non-existence is not interpreted as evidence of the inaccuracy of the Gypsy
Image--but rather that true "Gypsy life" is disappearing. This was the
sentiment in the closing words of the documentary film from California;
it is the sentiment expressed by journalist Ira Berkow in an article called
"Americanizing the Gypsy soul," which appeared in 1975: "Gypsies are shockingly,"
he wrote, "also becoming homeowners." Berkow’s distress echoed a
sentiment not new to journalism. "Even gypsies lose romance" (20 November,
1921); "Vanished Gypsies" (1 February, 1926); "Alas! Gypsies are progressive!"
(26 August, 1928) and "Reality overtakes the gypsy" (30 July,1938) are
headlines from earlier in this century collected by Eric Metzgar in a survey
of articles about Romani Americans all of which have appeared in
the New York Times (1985). They reflect their authors’ disappointment
in discovering that the "real" Gypsies they visited were so different from
the image they’d obviously hoped to find. That newspaper’s failure to acknowledge
the legitimate ethnic status of Gypsies by writing the word with a capital
remained its editorial policy until November, 1992, when pressure from
Romani organizations persuaded them to change it—though this was a style-change
it complies with only erratically even now.
The editorial written in 1928 concluded that "[r]egretfully, we have
come to believe that there are no Gypsies," and 12 years later in yet another
York Times editorial (11 February, 1940), sorrow was expressed at the
disappearance of traditional Romani professions, specifically trading in
horses and gold, but with some resignation, gladness that despite this,
"the gypsy symbol lingers in the hearts of man."
The need for a "gypsy symbol to linger in
the heart" was the argument made by Werner Cohn in his book The Gypsies
(1973:61), where he suggested that Gypsies survive as a people only because
they "are needed in [non-Gypsy] culture" (my emphasis), the implication
being that Roma exist merely because of non-Roma sufferance.
Certainly there is a need, perhaps in all cultures, for an avenue of
escape for those individuals who cannot function fully in their own society,
either because of personality traits or a genuine grievance against its
standards. But Cohn’s statement is misleading, however, because he does
not make the point that what attracts the "hippies and fanatics" he speaks
of are not, in fact, Gypsies Roma at all but the imaginary popular image
of Gypsies which those same individuals help to sustain.
A number of alternative reasons have been suggested, by sociologists
and others, as to what motivates such people to be attracted to the Gypsy
Image; one possibility is that the normalizing pressures of mainstream,
Anglo-dominated American society has robbed some of those in it of
their identity; ethnicity for such people becomes a precious commodity,
and since (unlike for Italian, Irish, Serbian, and other Americans) there
exists a tangible, mythical Gypsy identity to which "hippies and fanatics,"
musicians, actors and others apparently belong, it serves as a useful
all-purpose ethnic receptacle. Since it exists quite independently of Roma
themselves, there is never a conflict with the actual ethnic community
who may even make use of it in turn for their own purposes.
Fantasy projection harms the Romani people by keeping the stereotype
alive, and by making it difficult to convince the media of more serious
Gypsy-related issues. But another reason for the maintenance of the Gypsy
Image by the establishment has been more harmful in the past, though it
is far from dead: the Gypsy as scapegoat.
Since the 14th century, Gypsies in Europe have existed as a people without
a geographical homeland, and without any kind of political, military, educational,
or financial strength; an easy target for the application of blame. Gypsies
have been accused of theft, poisoning wells, poisoning cattle, spreading
diseases, stealing children, and even of cannibalism. The most recent charges
of the latter crime were made in Slovakia as recently as 1928. Kephart
has recently suggested that prejudice against Gypsies is based in their
being perceived of as a countercultural population—a refinement of the
notion of Gypsy as Scapegoat:
American Gypsies too, continue to face prejudice and discrimination.
Some observers contend that it is a matter of ethnic prejudice, similar
to that experienced by blacks, Chicanos and other minorities. However,
it is also possible that the Rom are perceived as a counterculture.
If people perceive of Gypsies as a counterculture, then unfortunately for
all concerned, prejudice and discrimination might be looked upon as justifiable
retaliation (Kephart 1982:43).
Yet another explanation, and an attractive one for this writer,
has been proposed by Sibley. He believes that there has been an intrinsic
manipulation of the Romani population by the establishment which, for its
own purposes, keeps the Gypsy Myth alive and resists efforts to adjust
it to something more realistic. Since that image is the antithesis of all
of the values of that establishment--morality, work ethic, hygiene, and
so on, it serves a useful purpose in helping to define the boundaries of
the dominant culture:
It is notable that myth contributes in a significant way to
the shaping of images of groups that do not fit the dominant social model.
The possibility that the characterization of social groups like Gypsies
may be based on myth is rarely considered, particularly in governmental
circles, probably because these myths are functional--they serve to define
the boundaries of the dominant system. Accounts of non-conforming behavior
assume the form of a romantic myth, or they involve imputations of deviancy,
which are also largely mythical; the romantic image, located at a distance
or in the past. necessarily puts the minority on the outside (Sibley 1981:195-196).
Romani reactions to their treatment by non-Gypsies have taken two
main directions. There has, on the one hand, been a withdrawal from
all unnecessary social and physical contact with non-Gypsies. Cultural
pressures to remain aloof have existed since before the exodus out of India,
and no doubt have their origins in the Indian caste system. Among
contemporary Gypsies in the United States, their actual manifestation differs
from group to group, being most strongly maintained by those who came here
directly out of slavery. But children are taught from the beginning
that a clear-cut division exists between people who are Roma and people
who are not, and that it must be maintained at all costs. This is reinforced
by notions of cleanliness, eating habits, the handling of animals, sexual
behavior, and so on. The desirability of being a Rom is emphasized; and,
while there are no illusions about the difficulties of maintaining Romani
values in a non-Romani environment, very few Gypsies would want to be anything
else. At the same time, great lengths are gone to in order to protect the
ethnic identity; it is still the case that only a handful of Gypsies admit
their ethnicity publicly, one reason for the apparently tiny number of
identifiable Gypsies in the professions.
On the other hand, there has been an internalization of the stereotype,
and a regurgitation of it for the public: if this is what fascinates the
gadjé, and if this is what they are willing to pay for, then they
shall have it. David Nemeth has recognized this, although his observations
are rather extreme:
More traditional Gypsy power-brokers ... may prefer being portrayed
by the media as hustlers, even predators, than as the pathetic prey of
Nazis and other racists (Nemeth 1986:117).
Media attention of this sort can in fact harm the whole community.
Police routinely step up their harassment of all Roma in an area, even
when just one individual or family is under investigation. Nevertheless,
an image is not untypically projected from within the Romani community
itself which can mislead the public, and thereby serve to protect it.
Sometimes this seems to be done instinctively: in the article by Brink
mentioned earlier (assuming that she did not put words into his mouth),
her interviewee claimed that Roma do not work like other people, and that
there were no Roma in the professions, no Romani doctors. And yet the individual
involved had attended a World Romani Congress in Europe and had met its
leaders, all Rom, who numbered among themselves physicians, professors,
politicians and engineers. His own nephew is majoring in computer
science at the University of Colorado. In the same way, outsiders
are discouraged from learning the Romani language and may be told that
it is Greek or Spanish. This misleading representation from within the
Romani community serves as a shield; it is believed that if inquisitive
non-Roma are busy pursuing the myth, they will leave the real thing alone.
The myth is a mechanism of liberation which allows a minimum of interference
from outside. The function of this, however, is beginning to be affected
by contemporary changes affecting the Gypsy community.
In the past few years, the American Romani population
has begun to organize itself in ways previously non-existent in this country.
Some have called such efforts "fantastic", others "a mere toying, a waste
of energy" and "artificially contrived" (Lípa, 1983:4). In an article
which appeared in 1984, the leading Hungarian scholar of Romani studies
mentioned above wrote that "it is a grave mistake to suppose that either
racial factors, or the idea of ethnic identity, unite the different Gypsy
groups" (Vekerdi 1984), although a report by a team of geneticists working
at the Boston General Hospital and published in The Lancet in August,
1987, made it clear that
... the analysis of blood groups, haptoglobin phenotypes, and
HLA types, have established Gypsies as a distinct population with origins
in the Indian region of the Punjab; this finding: is supported by the worldwide
Gypsy language, Romani, which is notably similar to Hindi (Thomas et
Romani self-determination is a threat to those scholars whose investment
in Gypsies is in their value as anthropological subjects. We are taking
their toys away, and they react accordingly. Like Inuit [Eskimos] without
igloos or Indians without tepees, Gypsies without wagons cheat the investigator
of something. While Anglo-Americans can progress from horse and cart to
automobile, "exotic" minorities are seen to be losing something of their
identity if they do too.
New conflicts for American Gypsies are becoming
evident as these movements grow: since obtaining permanent representation
in the United Nations in 1979, the International Romani Union has entered
the international forum; trans-Atlantic communication is on the increase;
because of the sharp increase in racist violence against Roma in post-Communist
Europe which has led to a massive influx of Roma coming here seeking asylum,
Washington has become very well aware of the Romani presence in this country.
Indeed two Congressional hearings on human rights abuses of Roma have been
held in Washington, the first on April 14th , 1994 and the second on July
21st last year. Romani organizations were involved in the Washington
meetings on the disbursement of the assets stolen from Holocaust victims
and placed in Swiss banks; it is not possible to remain invisible and still
be involved in such matters. More and more Romani Americans are seeking
legal recourse and challenging discrimination in the courts, and winning.
There is an increasing rejection of the word "Gypsy" and all of the negative
connotations that go with it. But if the existence of the Gypsy Myth
is to be eradicated in Euro-American society, both Roma and gadjé
are going to have to find alternatives to fulfill its functions, and this
is not likely to be accomplished soon.
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