A group of Roma tinsmiths, c. 1860. Photo via Europeana.eu / National Library of Hungary

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Understanding between Roma and non-Roma can only happen when both sides acknowledge and take responsibility for a painful past. From DoR.

Delia Grigore, an ethnologist and anthropologist, heads the Amare Rromentza Roma Center in Romania. This essay is part of The Habit of the Land, a DoR series about the imprint of slavery on Roma-Romanian relations curated by Magda Matache, director of Harvard University’s Roma Studies Program and a Roma rights activist.

In the 1990s, when I joined the Roma movement with the desire to write a PhD thesis on traditional Roma culture and the aspiration to support the reconstruction of ethnic identity from the perspective of a fledgling activist, I knew almost nothing about slavery.

I had only heard, from stories told by Roma elders, that “we worked for the landlords” or, from Roma folklore, that “my mother and father were no longer slaves.” However, I had no clear idea what slavery represented in the history of the Roma in Romania, and in the history of this country in general, how many hundreds of years it lasted, let alone its consequences on a legal, socio-economic, and especially on a spiritual level.

I knew very little about Roma slavery when I stepped, shyly, through the door of the national minorities department at the Ministry of Culture. “I’m a Gypsy, I’ve finished my degree in literature, and I want to do a PhD on the traditional customs of the Caldarari [the Romanian name of a subgroup of Roma people, also known as Kalderash],” I told Vasile Ionescu, also a Roma and an adviser on Roma issues, when he asked me what I was doing in his office. “We don’t work with Gypsies, only with Roma,” came his curt reply. It seemed both harsh and unfair, because I just wanted to write about Roma, and I was convinced that this was a good thing. I later understood that the history of racism against Roma in Romanian culture begins with the false name given to them, tsigan. In Romani, the word tsigan does not exist. The term comes from Middle Greek, from athinganos or athinganoi, where it meant “pagan,” “untouchable,” or “impure.” The word was first used in 1068 at a monastery in present-day Georgia by a monk writing about the heresy of the Athinganos, who he said were nomads, fortune tellers, and sorcerers, and advised his Orthodox Christian parishioners to keep away from these heretics.

In medieval Romanian countries, the term tsigan was used to designate the social status of a slave, not an ethnicity. As such, we already have two meanings of the word: the first is of a heresy, and then of a state situated outside society’s hierarchical system. The slave, or tsigan, was not part of the social structure, he was outside it, he was a simple object of exchange, he was the property of a master, who could be a ruler, a landlord, or a monastery. Later, the word tsigan stayed in the Romanian collective mind, and in current Romanian usage, with a deeply pejorative meaning.

Reading the very few history books that dared to tackle the difficult subject of Roma slavery, but especially studying archival documents, I understood that the current identity of the Roma in Romania is structured on a history of social exclusion and institutionalized racism. From the first attestation of the Roma in Romania in 1385 (that also mentioned their status as slaves); through the Romanian Holocaust, which aimed at and succeeded in exterminating tens of thousands of Roma; through the forced assimilation or cultural ethnocide of the communist period; through the killings and burning of Roma houses in the interethnic conflicts of 1994-2000; through the abuses, persecution, and police violence against Roma communities from the 1990s to the present time, which overwhelmingly intensified with the pandemic.

According to the laws and customs of the land, Roma slaves were excluded from the condition of human beings, being in a state of dependence that was not only economic (like serfs), but especially personal and legal – the worst form of servitude encountered in human history. They were considered chattel, being exchanged, sold, given away, inherited, and subjected to abuse and violence that went as far as rape, torture, and murder by their master.

The Roma family was not recognized as a community structure, but as a method of breeding slaves, akin to domesticated fowl. Slavery has also profoundly affected Roma children, who were separated from their families at the will of their masters, exchanged, given away or sold, often at lower prices than animals, because they were not considered good enough for work.

Carried out under pressure from Western abolitionism, astounded by the perpetuation of such a retrograde and inhumane institution as slavery in the progressive 19th century, and in the context of the efforts of the Romanian lands to win Western sympathy, the liberation of the Roma from slavery in 1856 was a difficult and relatively lengthy process, derailed by strong opposition from the Orthodox Church and most of the landlords.

Legal liberation did not, however, lead to a fundamental change in the status of the Roma in society. The reformist program of the revolutionaries of 1848, and the policies of the governments that followed them, neglected economic issues – the matter of giving them land in particular – and moral issues, being limited to legal emancipation and the often forced settlement of nomadic Roma. There were no policies to include the Roma among the citizens of the Romanian lands, which led to a return to their previous status, and the stigma associated with their ethnicity.

The consequences of slavery can still be seen today in the collective mental model of the majority, oversaturated with prejudices and stereotypes. The study of a significant part of Romanian folklore, such as proverbs, short stories, and fairy tales, emphasizes a mindset marked by irony and contempt for the Roma. The Roma are often seen as representatives of evil, perfidious, thieves, criminals, filthy, non-humans. In a word: anti-heroes.

This negative mental heritage, the absence of institutions for the formation and representation of the Roma cultural model (with the notable exception of the National Center for Roma Culture – Romano Kher) and the lack of correct information about the Roma in the school curricula and in the public sphere led to the stigmatization of the Roma identity, the internalization of this stigma, and the rejection of their ethnicity, often by the Roma themselves.

This is the new form of slavery: spiritual slavery, which no law can abolish without the firm and concerted contribution of all actors in society, from public authorities to opinion shapers.

Knowing all this, our Amare Rromentza association has attempted to spread knowledge and promote understanding of Roma history and culture, especially among young Roma and non-Roma, by producing and presenting the play Rromanipen, created in 2007-2008 with Roma students from the Romani section of the Faculty of Foreign Languages at Bucharest University, and with Roma students from other colleges.

The first reaction [to the play] of the young Roma and non-Roma was astonishment. There were also rejections from the non-Roma, who were skeptical of their ancestors’ history as slave owners. To these, I brought arguments proving the historical truth. There were also angry reactions from young Roma, who wondered why their enslaved ancestors did not revolt against slavery. I told them about the struggle for legal freedom for Roma slaves who had been legally freed, but were still kept enslaved by their masters.

In “Strategic directions for ethno-educational inclusion of the Roma,” I proposed a series of measures for knowing and understanding the historical truth, for destigmatizing the Roma ethnic identity, and for promoting a correct image of the Roma. Our association has created the concept of ethno-educational inclusion, an approach where the educational system officially includes the Roma by recognizing, promoting, guaranteeing, and cultivating their ethnic identity at all levels of schooling, and in continuing adult education. It is a new educational strategy that can be applied to any ethnic group or national minority.

A high-performing Roma student who attends a school with excellent facilities and highly qualified teachers is not, in our view, the beneficiary of a full quality education if they do not find an identity component in the school environment. After such a tragic history, Romanian society owes huge moral and material debts to the Roma, some of the most important being the recognition of slavery and the building of its memory in the collective Roma and Romanian mentality, which implies much more than designating Liberation Day, 20 February, as a holiday.

What is needed are national research programs, national publishing programs, the full and correct presence of Roma history and culture in the school curricula, textbooks and libraries, in the media, in all types of adult education, monuments in public places, and institutions for research and promotion of Roma cultural memory and heritage, such as research institutes, museums, theaters, regional and local cultural centers, Roma collections in public libraries, and others.

Reconciliation between the Roma and the majority society, in other words between former slaves and former slave owners, can only be achieved through recognition and acceptance of history by most of society, and by state institutions, on the one hand, and through the institutional reconstruction of Roma identity highlighting ethnic dignity, on the other. This in the hope that there is still a chance that the sons and daughters of the Roma will finally be full citizens, and the sons and daughters of Romanians will no longer be slaves to their own fantasies of otherness.

This essay originally appeared in the Romanian magazine DoR. Translated by Ioana Caloianu.