Thursday, September 9, 2010

Black is a Country: "Gypsies," Justice, and Brown Versus Board of Education

Last week I was watching the movie Drag Me to Hell with a friend. At some point I had a moment of clarity, turned to her and said, "damn, the Roma have it harder than black folks."

The film jarred loose a series of memories. When I was a teenager I clearly recall my Korean American war bride boss coming into the convenience store where I worked and warning me that I should be especially vigilant because "gypsies have been sighted all across Connecticut, and they are robbing Shell gas stations by swarming them like bees!" I also found a lost laugh recalling a colleague who traveled to Hungary and was robbed by a "Roma woman who pulled up her t-shirt to reveal mesmerizing, gigantic breasts which she then proceeded to squeeze such that milk was expelled." My friend--now blinded by Roma breast milk--was then robbed and left penniless in a remote village.

Consider for a moment: Gypies are constantly stereotyped, vilified, and reduced to the most foul caricatures of personhood. I would suggest that in the hierarchy of groups that are still permissible as targets of mass humor and stereotyping in America, they would rank somewhere above East and South Asians and below poor white people. In terms of socioeconomic status, "gypsies" (I hate that word) have likely earned their whiteness in America and been washed away into a sea of nondescript stock of Eastern European descent where they achieve (or not) just like any other group of plain ol' white folks. But even in the United States, the stigma of being a "gypsy" still remains. By contrast, in Europe the stigma against gypsies exists as naked hostility, hostility that is stark, harsh, and often violent.

For example, in Eastern Europe the Roma have been struggling against discrimination in their access to education and schooling. They have modeled their resistance on the groundbreaking legal decision Brown versus Board of Education which was one of the first nails in the coffin of Jim Crow. The Roma's use of Brown is inspirational. Despite its struggles with obsolescence in the present, the Roma's enlistment of Brown signals the historical weight of the NAACP as an organization. More broadly, the use of Brown v. Board, and their appropriating the language of The Civil Rights Movement (never forget that The Movement itself borrowed and was inspired by Gandhi's anti-colonial struggle) is an object lesson in how the Black Freedom Struggle has given so much to Americans of all colors, and has inspired people around the world.

Black Americans often don't claim that gift. Perhaps, it is because like Americans at large (and to paraphrase Gore Vidal) we don't have a memory past last Tuesday. Maybe it is a function of some odd mix of colorblindness, charity, and politeness that those in the know may claim the genius that is Black creativity in the arts, letters, and music, but for whatever reason these same members of the negro intelligentsia are often resistant to claiming our gifts to American democracy.

The Roma haven't forgotten. They know that Black is a country. And perhaps the wellspring that is blackness as "political race" will give them the strength to overcome the adversity and challenges facing them as a people.


Bilal said...

As a Gypsy in the US I can relate to this article. I grew up with all white people and in school was constantly called nigger, hadji, king tut, etc., which is a form of racism I don't think many Blacks experience today. When I hear the word "Gypsy" used, it's almost always used incorrectly and leaves me with that weird feeling of having my ethnicity referred to but simultaneously invisible.
My one criticism with this article is a complaint I have posted again and again on article about Gypsies. WE ARE NOT ALL ROMA. Roma are ONE TYPE of Romany. I am Sinti, There are also Romanichals, Gitanos, and Manouche. None of these are Roma but they are all Romanies.

olderwoman said...

Rashid, thanks for your comment -- I also had thought Roma=Gypsy, so I learned something new.

And thanks to Chauncy for the original post. I don't comment much here, but I read and appreciate.

chaunceydevega said...

@Rashid--thanks for sharing. I too learned something. Question: How did you or your family reconcile being "white" by American standards, but not "White" socially/politically?

@olderwoman--thank you. I follow your site as well--with great envy.

macon d said...

@ Rashid on Romany:


Plane Ideas said...

ROMA are not Black folks...I don't like the contrast...Getting tired of these tales of white folks suffering as much as my tribe..Not feelin it...Of course I support the ROMA's humanity and right to equality..

Anonymous said...

I think equating Black people and Romany is problematic. Each group has a different historic and contemporary set of difficulties and racial insensitivties.

That being said, my ethnic background is Roma (one of the tribes of Romany), Italian, and Black. My Roma great grandmother refused to acknowledge her Roma heritage in order to pass into American Eastern European immigrant communities. She did this because she was then able to get jobs and not be ostracized as a thief and liar. At the end of her life, she finally admitted that we were partly gypsies--something we had all figured out a long time before she would say it aloud (but also something we never mentioned in front of her because we knew she would be upset by it).

My Black great grandfather married an Italian woman, who he met through her brother. Both my great grandfather and her brother (my great uncle) worked in the foundry of a steel mill together. The steel mill would only employ blacks and Italians in the foundry because they were "too dark" to work anywhere else. My great grandfather, who was light-skinned and had "good hair", passed easily into Italian society. He told people his last name was changed at Ellis Island into Massey. It wasn't, but the story worked well amongst people whose names were often changed at Ellis Island in order to "Americanize" them.

Probably neither my Roma great grandmother nor my Black great grandfather thought about the politics of passing; instead, they chose a course that allowed them to be "white" and opened up for them a world that would have been unaccessible to them otherwise.

My great grandfather did not hide that he was Black from his family; only from the outside world. My great grandmother hid from both her family and the outside world.

Their stories and their motivations are similar but what brought them to that decision was clearly different. While the political and social segregation of the Gypsies and Blacks are incomparable, the stories and choices of individuals may overlap.

As a side note, Romany are still having a legally tough time in Eurpe despite the European Union. Often Germany and France both deport Romany from their respective countries or set them up in the worst public housing available (sometimes without running water or electricity).

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. I feel you. I am not playing the white ethnic reactionary card where we don't rank oppressions game. I have no use for. We certainly can rank oppressions. In this country the experience of black folks is quite unique.

@Anon. One of the pleasures of this project is that I get to hear from people I would otherwise not interact with, and once again see the diversity of the black experience.

I wasn't saying that black folk equals Roma. I was suggesting more about political race, oppression, and shared struggles. Certainly, both peoples have a specific set of historical experiences.

Your family story is fascinating, especially given how white ethnics, especially in factories were segregated by group, and blacks were generally looked down up on by all involved. Ironically, giving black folk some flexibility in some regards. Did you elders ever speak of the uniqueness of an Italian introducing his sister to a black man?

Your points on passing are powerful. How did your grandfather reconcile this choice? Was it simple pragmatism? Did he feel guilt/shame over distancing himself from the black community?

Anonymous said...


My great grandparents lived well into their 90s, so I had the pleasure of learning from them and hearing their stories.

My great grandmother, Loretta, was introduced to my great grandfather, Abe, at a company picnic/dance/social event. They talked and danced. After that, they would meet up at other dances, eventually he proposed. My great grandma's parents were still in Italy. She lived with her brother, Anthony, and his family. Anthony knew and worked with my great grandfather; he trusted him and found him to be, as he once said, "a decent and kind man. His skin color didn't bother me. The Boy Scouts wouldn't allow either of our sons to join because of the color of our skin. Who was I to judge?"

My great grandfather, Abe, was a quiet man. I would imagine that life made him so. When I was in college and enrolled in a class on race and representation, I asked him why he chose to pass for white. He said, "Because I loved your grandmother, and it would make her life easier and our children's lives easier. I didn't pass as white, though, I passed as Italian. When we were your age, to many people, it was the same thing."

I always knew my great grandfather was black. It was never a secret in our family. He and my great grandmother and their kids visited his family in Mississippi a few times, where they all became black (even my great grandmother who was a Southern Italian woman, olivey-caramel in complexion). My great grandparents and my grandfather talked about how once they crossed over into Maryland they would have to remember "the rules of Jim Crow." I've been to family reunions in Mississippi.

The double passing is even more intriguing to me than the singular passing. I sometimes wonder if their visits to Mississippi were how he dealt with his decision. I never asked him about whether he felt guilt or shame. He probably would not have told me the truth anyway.

Their kids looked Italian (or light-skinned, if you look at it from another angle). My mother looks Italian because my grandfather married and Italian girl. My father was of Eastern European Gypsy stock. I look mostly white. Most people who meet me ask me what my ethnic background is, or when I start telling stories about my family, say something like, “I knew you weren’t white-white” (whatever that means). My Black friends like to call me Sally Hemmings or ultra high-yellow. In the old racial definitions, I’m an octoroon. And I never know what to fill out on those racial identification forms (do I go by the one-drop rule, the way I look (and do my full lips count more than my light skin? my freckles could go either way.), my ethnic heritage?). I usually just check “Other.”

Anonymous said...

Gypsies aren't white, they are Indians.