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The burden of identity: How to survive your Romani ethnicity

Prague, 13.3.2012 20:10, (ROMEA)
Visual artist Laďa Gažiová at work in her studio (photo:  Lukáš Houdek)

If one listens to the most recent record by Gipsy.cz, 2011's Desperado, it seems the career of lead singer Radek Banga has followed an interesting arc. From his purely hip-hop beginnings with Syndrom Snopp, through his several exploratory albums where he experimented with singing in English and with R&B, Banga came up with the album Romano hip-hop in 2006, which kicked off an eminently Romani and very civic-minded part of his artistic life. Six years later, however, there is a veto on the Romani agenda in his music, which Banga has commented on as follows: "If I had to go back in time, I would never have gotten involved in politics. [...] From the point of view of a musician, it was an error, almost suicide. We fell into the category of the so-called activists and many doors were closed to us which unfortunately will never open again."

When Ladislava Gažiová came to Prague to study art, the label of "Romani artist" was also put her. Gažiová, who comes from a family that is both Romani and Slovak, was impressed at first by what the extent of her success meant for Czechoslovak Romani people and started to consciously use her art for pro-Romani activities. Not quite five years after her "coming out" as Romani, however, the display of good will towards her has begun to bother her: "I'm a Romani woman and then an artist. When they invite me somewhere, it's because I'm the 'miraculous gypsy', not because I'm a good artist." Currently Gažiová is hypersensitive about publicly presenting her Romani ethnicity: "I am still willing to contribute, for example, to leading workshops for Romani people, but when someone wants to film me as a 'good example', it doesn't seem right to me anymore. I don't want to be personally seen."

The former Monika Horáková, today Monika Mihaličková, who was previously a Czech MP during 1998 – 2002 for the Freedom Union party (Unie Svobody - US), does not feel any inhibitions about connecting either her past or future careers with her Romani ethnicity. "I am a Romani woman and a Romani woman I will remain," she says with unconcealed pride. The psychology graduate is in business today instead of engaging publicly on behalf of the Romani minority. The reason why is both personal and societal: "I completely burned out because I realized I was alone. Everyone around me was going their own way and expecting me to address the entire Romani agenda with one assistant. It was exhausting."

These stories of outstanding Romani figures whose capabilities, combined with societal demand, have catapulted them into the Czech headlines may differ in detail, but not in their basic features. These people come under enormous pressure because their positions are tempting to many interest groups, who project their own aims, ambitions and hopes onto these individuals. Romani people see them as saviors. Should they fail, that might be perceived as a betrayal of their own people or interpreted as screwing up. On the other hand, the gadje often seek to suck dry any intelligent link to the incomprehensible, outlandish world of the Romani people – to extract everything possible from the individual and his or her contacts and, to a great degree, to transfer all responsibility for intercultural conflicts onto that person. It often happens that a Romani celebrity ends up in a kind of world between worlds, neither fish nor fowl. Ordinary Romani people consider the celebrity too high-class and therefore a renegade, while for a certain segment of the majority society the celebrity will never be assimilated enough. This gives rise to the "miraculous gypsy" effect. As Romani people inured to working in a wide range of fields can attest, Czechs usually comment to them as follows: "You're so decent it's like you're not a Gypsy at all".

Whether well-known Romani figures view these circumstances as an obstacle to a truly full-blown career or whether they "just" run out of strength, their response often is to remove themselves from the ethnically-profiled scene. They tone down the minority nature of their creations (Banga, Gažiová) or they find a new field where they can participate unencumbered by ethnicity (Mihaličková). However, there is one more route, well-described by anthropologists, which is a bit taboo in all minority societies, and that is the route of “passing”. Pretending to be someone else has been a tool of the persecuted throughout the ages.

Either/or

In his 1980 monograph “The State of Ambiguity: Studies of Gypsy Refugees”, Polish anthropologist Ignacy-Marek Kamiński described fascinating examples of passing related to the creation of the Union of Gypsies/Romanies (Svaz Cikánů-Romů - SCR) in communist Czechoslovakia. From 1970-1971, Kamiński, while still a student, repeatedly visited Czechoslovakia and participated in the dramatic changes in society there as a result of the Warsaw Pact occupation and the transition to the "normalization" era. For his thesis on Romani politics he needed to verify how the SCR functioned at local level in the field. He happened to be in the village of Ljubava, the headquarters of the district SCR cell, living in the family of Mr Josef, who was a committed communist and chair of the SCR branch. Josef's story later proved to be a kind of model for a situation that impressed itself upon the lives of many members of the Romani elite during that complicated time.

To begin with, Josef never emphasized his Romani origin, even though it could have been assumed from the fact that he was a high-ranking official of the SCR. When asked directly, he said he was Romani, but claimed to come from a town and to have nothing in common with Romani people living in the settlements. Whenever Kamiński wanted to travel into the countryside, Josef at first tried to dissuade him and did his best to convince him he should do his research in the local organization’s office; later, he arranged his transportation and chose the locality for him in advance so that his field research was restricted to interviews with other SCR dignitaries. These people usually recited what were clearly slogans before sending the student back to civilization in a hurry. In the end, Kamiński set out for the settlements without permission and determined that a) what he had been seeing all along was a sort of Potemkin village and not the real Romani community and b) that Josef was considered magerdo (polluted) among his own people, which was why he did not want Kamiński to be in contact with the rural Romani community.

The reason for Josef’s expatriation from the Romani world had to do with the advantages flowing from the power he had originally come by deservedly and honorably. The son of communist parents and a fighter in the Slovak National Uprising, during the 1950s Josef enjoyed many privileges as a party member in exchange for his activities as an educational lecturer. While he never asked for those privileges, over time they understandably became indispensable to the family budget. Because the SCR was, during the 1960s, established from above through Romani people who were loyal communists, Josef was also called upon to do this work by virtue of his ethnic origin, which in the light of his party membership had always seemed of secondary importance to him. The Romani leaders of the settlements, however, considered such external “passers” to be traitors, and that is why some settlements from the start had no representation in the SCR, while elsewhere at least one SCR member could be found in every Romani family.

When Kamiński returned to Czechoslovakia one year later, he determined that the situation had radically transformed itself. In order to ensure access to the SCR funds, the internal leaders of the Romani settlement had permitted residents to join in places where it would have been unthinkable before. The shadowy organization that had originally been created from above in order to coax the so-called gypsy nationalists into submission had been reborn as a relatively functional body with a rich range of economic, social, and sports activities, which had paradoxically strengthened the national demands of Gypsies-Romanies. At the same time, however, the atmosphere in society had changed. The consolidation of the Husák regime was a real threat to the SCR, which had become so beneficial to all involved, and this resulted in the violent dissolution of the Union in 1973. It was time to regroup. Josef (and probably dozens of other people in his position) needed to “pass” their way back into the heart of the Romani community. He sought out the male relative on his mother’s side with the highest status in the settlement, the side of the family that had originally cast him off, and asked him to become the godfather of his grandson. Through this traditional ritual, the way back into the community opened up for him.

Borrowed lives

In 1990, an author on the other side of the globe who lived in a very different social setting passed away. Anatole Broyard had never wanted to be labeled a black author, and is therefore hardly remembered as an author at all. Thanks to an article entitled “White Like Me” published by Henry Louis Gates in The New Yorker magazine in 1996, Broyard has become a symbol of “passing”. Gates revealed Broyard’s overwhelmingly chameleon behavior as the embodiment of a man whose public role consisted in carefully erasing his real origins step by step.

Anatole Broyard was born in 1920 in New Orleans into a light-skinned black family. While in the segregated South his racial affiliation was clearly a given, he joined the Army as a white man. Exceptionally gifted, lettered and thoughtful, Broyard was well aware that the label of “black humanitarian” would connote a restricted intellect. Thanks to his active participation in the military he eventually graduated from college, after which he confided to his sister that he intended to change his identity by moving to New York. As his friend the black playwright W. F. Lucas recalls, when Broyard got onto the subway in Brooklyn he was black, but by the time he got out in Greenwich Village, it was as a white man.

In 1954, Discovery magazine published a story of Broyard’s called “What the Cystoscope Said”. This was a breakthrough moment in his career, and from that time on intellectual circles expected him to publish his magnum opus. That never happened. Instead, he became famous for his brilliant, sharp texts on contemporary literature as a daily reviewer for The New York Times. He cut himself off from his family and never revealed his ethnic identity even to his own children. Until the end of his life he remained a promising write,r someone who lived a great novel, but never managed to write it.

Broyard’s life story is strikingly similar to the plot of Philip Roths’ 2000 novel The Human Stain. The main hero of that novel, university professor Coleman Silk, is looking forward to retiring in much-deserved respect as an expert in the classics and the dean of his faculty when he is dishonored by charges of racism filed against him by two black female students whom he refers to as “spooks” because they never attend his seminar (“Do any of you know them? Do they exist, or are they spooks?”). The paradox of this incident, which destroys Silk’s career, is the fact that he himself is African-American but has been passing as an American Jew.

Roth rejected criticism that he had been inspired by Broyard when forming the character of Silk, claiming that when Gates’ article about Broyard came out in June 1996, The Human Stain had already been finished for several months. There is no reason to disbelieve him. The effort to live one’s life unburdened by a stigma whose malignant nature is well-known, thereby avoiding potential trouble, is not only human and understandable, it is shared by every living creature around us. Anyone meditative and sensitive who is aware of the impact of being pigeon-holed as a black, disabled, lesbian or any other kind of minority artist must find the limits dictated by membership in a minority terribly restrictive.

In the end, all of the heroes of these stories are addressing a similar dilemma: If they embrace their roots and reveal themselves to be “miraculous” (i.e., normal), will those around them still perceive them as good at their profession? Or will they always be asked to perform in the name of their community, and will their genuine gifts and work be overshadowed by the exaggeration of their ethnic or racial identity? Is the kind of passing that is purchased at the expense of real intimacy with one’s family and friends a betrayal of them, or does the person making that decision suffer the most?

Living like a stunt double

It is considered socially acceptable here to curse the Gypsies. In conversation, white Czechs will raise the “Romani issue” with astonishing lightness, firmly believing that everyone agrees with them, just as they do when complaining about conditions here. It is simply part of social awareness that Gypsies are inadaptable, that they live in prefab housing that has never been maintained, that the guys spend their time in the gaming rooms, the women pickpocket tourists on public transit, and their impoverished children with their low IQs graduate from the special schools.

“I know tons of Romani college students,” says Laďa Gažiová. In her experience this is not an exceptional situation - she encounters such people every single day. The difficulty is that educated Romani people are not visible and do not want to be. They usually are suffering from trauma they experienced during their childhoods and must try very hard to succeed: “When the topic of their identity is raised, it’s a big problem. People want to have peace and quiet.” At first, Gažiová herself was unaware that she is half-Romani. She did not find out until she attended elementary school and definitely did not want to be a Romani girl: “I perversely denied it until college. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. How did I feel? That denying it was the right choice. Especially in eastern Slovakia it’s a stigma, you’re considered subhuman.”

Few people in majority society are able to imagine the courage needed to come out of this anonymity. The price of your sincerity is a loss of privacy, the threat that the media will “dig something up”. Your loved ones fear for your safety. Passing elites have good reason to blend in. However, those who take the risk of publicly supporting Romani people deserve even more respect because of it.

Author’s note: The quote from Radek Banga is cited from an interview entitled “We have made a record for the Czech ear” dated 9 May 2011, available at http://www.koule.cz/cs/clanky/gipsy-natocili-jsme-desku-pro-cesky-ucho-19483.shtml#. The quotes from Ladislava Gažiová and Monika Mihaličková come from interviews conducted with them by the author in February 2012.

This article was originally published in Czech in Romano voďi (Romani Soul) 1-2/2012. If you are interested in subscribing to this publication, please write to romea@romea.cz.

Gwendolyn Albert, Karolina Ryvolová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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