Of Pride of race and lineage and self*

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Writer’s block. Because I don’t know how to convey the sense of momentum that I feel about tomorrow’s special event hosted by the Romanian Cultural Centre as part of the The Roma – from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’ exhibition. 

First, we will screen the award-winning film Our School by Mona Nicoara, documenting an ubiquitous aspect of institutionalized racism in Romania: educational segregation of Roma children and what has or has not been done about it in today’s Europe. 

And then, in sharp contrast to the sense of despondency and discouragement that pervades ‘the Roma issue’, it will be my honour to give the floor to four of the most inspiring Roma artists and activists that I have met. 

For me, Alina Serban (Actor, London), Nicu Dumitru (Project Manager – Terre des Hommes, Bucharest), Artur Conka (Photographer, London) and Ewelina Pawlowska (Roma Community Support Worker, London) are the real McCoy when it comes to Roma activism. Four ordinary people, getting on with their ordinary lives and at the same time contributing to a tremendous wave that is sure to change the face of Europe in the next decade or so. Getting to know them and their work gradually over the past few months has been both a privilege and a confirmation of what I already knew: that Roma liberation is alive and kicking and way ahead of the curve of media perceptions and even the efforts of policy makers (albeit helped by some of those efforts). And it is something we would all do well to notice since it will change all our lives to the better. 

Because when a people awakens and starts to question their history, they question everything about all of us. They hold up a mirror to society at large and to each one of us who has been stuck in the old ways of believing that we must fear those who are different, lest they jiggle us out of our carefully manicured but precarious existence.

I recently watched the film Searching for Sugar Man. It is the most beautiful story about how the white anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was inspired by a mysterious Native American musician known as Rodriguez. And so, Europe finds itself in its own ‘before-Mandela moment’. It is an exciting time and full of promise. The question is: are we going to rise to it? and would we know Sugar Wo/man if we stumbled across her? 

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* the title of this blog is inspired by W.E.B. du Bois’ Credo: ‘I believe in Pride of race and lineage and self; in pride of self so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves; in pride of lineage so great as to despise no man’s father; in pride of race so chivalrous as neither to offer bastardy to the weak nor beg wedlock of the strong’ (in Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 1920, page 3

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The Roma from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’: meaning is in the eye of the beholder  

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We all see the world through thick distorted lenses. By the time we grow up, we acquire tunnel vision, limited by the many personal knocks we have suffered; by the fears of things that happened or we think may happen; but limited most of all by the prejudices that surround us like a deep fog, by ancient beliefs we unthinkingly inherit from family, teachers, the media and society at large.

Meanwhile, reality moves on, changes and evolves. Even individuals we thought we knew grow and transform and make new lives for themselves. But groups of people, nations and peoples as well enter new spaces, physical and imaginary, and within a generation, they may be nothing like their ancestors.

And still, the weight of unexamined and unchallenged pre-conceptions robs us of the miracle of this transformation – of ourselves and others. We look but we cannot see. Family, group and national history bears down on us without our knowing it, and forces us to believe what is no longer true, or perhaps never was.

Tomorrow, an exhibition I am curating opens at the Romanian Cultural Centre. The Roma – from ‘extra’ to ‘ordinary’  is an invitation to make a conscious effort of moving beyond, moving out, moving towards those people from whom we have been separated by prejudice, fear and passivity.

The exhibition is but a small step towards the Roma people, who for centuries have been stolen from us by the distortions of slavery, racial profiling, state-sponsored xenophobia, economic inequality and yes, romantic notions of ‘a different race’. And for all that time, in reality – they were just people like us, thoroughly ordinary and as different from each other as we are from our neighbours.

The organisers, Roma and non-Roma activists, academics and artist want to challenge you, the visitor, to look again at those we used to call a number of pejorative names and today, we call respectfully ‘Roma’ (meaning person). As you move through the displays, try to keep in mind a phrase from that great academic and film maker, Trinh T Minha, ‘I see life looking at me’. Allow yourself to take three different viewpoints:

As you walk up the stairs, take a different look at the corrosive media messages that surround you like a thick coat. Do it through the eyes of Roma actor and activist: what do you see? do you see differently?

As you walk into the dark room, take a different look at your own history. Look squarely at slavery and the holocaust through the eyes of those caught up in those horrors: what do you notice? what do you learn?

Finally, as you walk into the room of light, take a fresh look at ordinary Roma lives, at people living, loving, working, celebrating, immigrating, raising children, making art, organising, sharing history. Try to look through ordinary Roma eyes: what do you feel? what if these people became your friends? or family?

Then take a moment to reflect and tell us what thoughts or questions your visit has engendered. Ask again that ancient question: who is going to steal our children? Perhaps it’s no other than ourselves, by failing to make the effort to go find out what racism has done to our minds and by failing to keep up with them, our children, whose reality is ever-changing.

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