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.