African Americans and the Gypsies: a cultural relationship formed through hardships

by Chuck Todaro

“The Irish are the niggers of Europe … Say it loud. I’m Black an’ I’m proud,” echoes a memorable quote of ‘90s cinema. ((Alan Parker,
director, “The Commitments,” 1991)) But the real “niggers” of Europe aren’t the Irish; that mark belongs to the detested Gypsies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATsigan ((East European terms for Gypsy – all following the tsigan root – include tsigan in Romania, cigany in Hungary, cigani in
Serbia, tsingani in Greece, tsigani in Bulgaria, tsyganski in Russia and cygan in Poland.)), the East-European equivalent of Gypsy, “which was a synonym for ‘slave’ during the five and a half centuries of Gypsy slavery in that country (Romania), is as offensive for Romas as the word ‘nigger’ is for African Americans,” writes Roma scholar Ian Hancock. ((“The Roots of Anti Gypsyism: to the Holocaust and After,” Center of Romani Archives and Documentation, 1997))

Gypsy history is a series of expulsions, beginning with an exodus out of India, across Persia, into the Balkans ‘til they were swept to the edge of the European continent, over gangplanks, onto ships sending them to the Americas.

In the East European country of Romania, land of iron-fisted ruler Prince Vlad Tepes, aka Dracula, the “undesirable” Gypsies were being systematically rounded up and enslaved. But even Dracula, called the Impaler, who usually chose staking his prisoners, preferred Gypsies with their heads on. He brought back nearly 12,000 Gypsy slaves from campaigns in Bulgaria during his reign in the 15th century. The Gypsy slaves – like the African slaves a few years later – were sold on the block to the highest bidder.

It is the slavery issue that begins the African American-Roma association and molds many of the cultural similarities that follow. It starts with the propaganda around the plantation labeling the slaves as “soulless” “talking animals,” helping to justify the lucrative trade against an increasing religious and political conscience declaring “all men are created equal.” These derogatory images went viral, creeping into popular literature, stereotyping the African American as a buffoon or the feared “black brute.”

It is the slavery issue that begins the African American-Roma association and molds many of the cultural similarities that follow.

Meanwhile, the Gypsies were being portrayed as flirtatious females, petty thieves, kidnappers of white babies, fortunetellers and pickpockets as portrayed in Caravaggio’s famous painting, “The Fortune Teller,” where the pretty Gypsy girl reading a young man’s palm slyly removes his ring.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile film and literature were doing their magic by affecting the opinions of people who may never even have met a Black man or brown skinned Gypsy, these negatives were also reaching the bottom ranks and subtly stigmatizing the slaves into accepting a subservient role in society. Their dignity was taking a beating and stirring new feeling of either disdain of the oppressor or idolization, which shows in the brewing tensions between field slaves and the better connected house servants, the so-called “Uncle Tom,” a term still thrown around today to denigrate “too much” assimilation.

The self-hatred phenomena began appearing throughout the Gypsy camp, spreading like a virus as members of the clan began disguising their ancestry in an effort to assimilate. The transition came easier for better off Gypsies like the respected musician class. “When the Lautari from Morunglav, Olt, say we are not Gypsies, they mean that they do not want to be identified with most Roma, which ‘everyone’ knows as wild, lazy misfits, potential delinquents … The Lautari often go to great lengths to keep under wraps the fact that they are Roma,” writes Sperantza Radulescu in her book “Chats About Gypsy Music.”

Other tribes found the transition into mainstream society simply cut off to them. The Rudari of the forest, whose purged Roma culture had been replaced by the old-fashioned ways of the peasants, found themselves excluded from both white society, identifying them “tsigan” (Gypsy), and the Romas, ostracizing them for their loss of language and tradition, labeling them now simply “very poor Romanians.”

Soul food meets Gypsy food

Culture is our customs, language and also the food we eat. Every ethnicity, from the people of the arctic tundra to the bountiful equator, possesses its own specific culinary taste developed by locally available ingredients and economy. The oppressive slavery era would help mold a comparable African American and Romanian Gypsy cuisine.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhite men mocked the African American meal as chicken and watermelon, often depicting the poor slave in caricatures as stealing watermelons out of the farmer’s vegetable patch. A similar image painted by the Europeans had Gypsies stealing chicken and eggs from the farmer’s barn and, instead of watermelon, it was fruits from his orchards.

“‘You watch the Gipsies, Kate. Call me if they try to steal anything,’ writes Kate Seredy in her 1959 children’s story, “The Good Master.” “She looked out the window – there were Gipsies all over the place! … There were at least six in the poultry yard catching chickens.”

Thefts like these did occur, causing some Gypsies to admit yet excuse their petty behavior with statements like that of Denis Biga from Apalina village in Transylvania: “A Gypsy steals a chicken to feed his children and gets six years in prison while Romanian senators steal millions of dollars and no one says anything.”

Many of these acts of desperation were caused by severe poverty and a dependency on food provisions that put the slave in direct competition with the master’s farm animals. The slaves subsisted on the surplus, such as potatoes, cabbage and corn. Cornbread and beans became a major staple on both continents. The African American cooked black-eyed peas served with pork while a peek under the lid of the Gypsy cauldron commonly reveals a stew of mashed beans and spices mixed with boney cuts of meat.

The slaves weren’t eating sirloin or filet mignon; they were being rationed the cheapest cuts of the animal. Meat of diseased animals was even known to be passed off on the resilient slaves, which the Gypsies colorfully legitimized with sayings like, “The flesh of a beast which God kills must be better than that of one killed by the hand of man.” ((John Hoyland, “Historical Survey of the Customs, Habits and Present State of the Gypsies” (London: York, 1816), p. 42))

The oppressive slavery era would help mold a comparable African American and Romanian Gypsy cuisine.

“When we killed hogs, the white folks got all the good parts, least they thought that, and we got the neck bones an’ ears, an’ snoots, an’ tails, an’ feet, an’ the entrails; what they called the chitlings (chitterlings),” reports a former slave in Herbert C. Covey and Dwight Eisnach’s book, “What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe slaves were given what other people didn’t eat; however, the slaves were the best chefs, some of them quite famous like George Washington’s own Hercules, a noted “artist” in the kitchen. They used this knowledge around the kitchen into turning detestable ingredients into delicacies.

African Americans serve chitlins (pig intestines) and hog maw (pig’s stomach) with rice and collard greens, while Gypsy women serve up pig stomach and other scraps of meat swimming in cooked cabbage and sauce they call “shak te mas,” literally meaning cabbage and meat. Pig skin fried to a crispy bite in the African American community is handed out raw to Gypsy children with a swipe of salt as a chewy favorite. Fatback, another cheap cut of meat found in both Gypsy and African American cooking, is commonly used as a vegetable seasoning or can be fried like bacon. A favorite in the African American kitchen is cooking the fat into their bread known as “crackling cornbread.”

Pig’s feet, gizzards, neck bones are other favorites that regularly turn up in the African American and Gypsy dinner plate – also chicken backs that Gypsies serve in stews or in their “goulash” as both a way of stretching the budget and lasting ‘til tomorrow’s breakfast. For most Gypsies, refrigeration is still an unaffordable commodity.

Blacks call African American cuisine “soul food” because it feeds the spirit as well as the body. It’s comfort food, and that means it’s more than just nutritious – it’s delicious! Though Gypsies lack a catchy slogan for their cooking style, their love of the appetites turns any mealtime into a celebration.

A cultural renaissance

An 11th century Islamic invasion into India set off the Gypsy exodus, driving them through Persia, then Byzantium before crossing into Europe. Their rich culture and sacred traditions of a 3,000 year civilization slowly dissolved along their travels, replaced by many passing influences. The African slaves who had been collected since colonial times along a 4,000-mile stretch of West African coastland would also gradually surrender their identifying languages, beliefs and traditions to the influences of the surrounding majority.

The vibrant fashion styles of pure Roma and the African homeland was the first custom quashed by the barrenness of clothing afforded the slaves; a female garment of the plantation slave commonly consisted of a one-piece frock or slip made of coarse “Negro cloth.” The Gypsy slaves were repeatedly noted in travel journals for their “nakedness.” “It is shameful, disgusting and sad to see these ragged, dirty, half naked Gypsies, both men and women, working for no pay in the richly decorated palaces of the landowners,” observed 19th century traveler F. Nemtsov.

Out of sight, yet not out of mind, their affection for colors and other forms of elaboration would reemerge during Sunday religious services where African Americans threw off their black and gray work garments and fashionably expressed themselves. Every Sunday the Black church came alive with elegant, vibrant styles topped with flamboyant female head coverings known in the community as “crowns.”

Gypsies similarly use life’s important social events to fashionably express themselves, such as their weddings, as seen in the popular reality TV series, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” where “more bling” became a catchphrase. The Gypsy fashion sense is about standing out. “Basically I want people to talk about my dress on their deathbed,” commented one participant about her outrageous outfit.

The vibrant fashion styles of pure Roma and the African homeland was the first custom quashed by the barrenness of clothing afforded the slaves.

While fashion allows for an outward mode of expression, name giving provides a more personalized sense of identity. Surnames historically identified an origin as is the case with the “son of” suffix (Johnson, Stevenson) or an occupation (Carpenter, Cook), a residence (London, Hillside) or notable physical or behavioral characteristics (Short, Goodchild).

Today, surnames offer little more information other than identifying an ethnicity. This, however, isn’t the case for either Gypsies or African Americans, whose last names serve as a reminder of slavery – some directly after having acquired the family name of the master. It wasn’t ‘til a resurgence of self-identity brought on by the Civil Rights Movement that the distinctive African American names began to appear. Some of these given names were formed by adjoining prefixes to create unique sonances like Latoya, DaJon, Leshandra. Heroes of classical and Greek literature like Dante and Venus have also become popular in the African American community as well as a resurgence of African language names like Tanisha, Chad, Jamal and recently Barack.

While fashion allows for an outward mode of expression, name giving provides a more personalized sense of identity.

The Gypsies, on the other hand, greeted assimilation by forming two separate identities: First comes the humdrum formal name of the majority like Peter, Paul, Mary listed on birth certificates and other ID papers. Secondly, a charismatic community name reflects the child’s personality, like Suto, meaning sleepy in the Gypsy tongue, Chapaladi, meaning silly, or the popular Kalo, meaning blackie. Animal comparisons are also quite commonly used like Kani, meaning chicken, for a spirited child or Pusomori, meaning little flea. A new trend has recently emerged using the names of heroes of films like Angelika, Jamesbond, Tarzan, Vandam, Jackychan.

“If you want to keep something secret from black folks, put it between the covers of a book.” – African American proverb

Knowledge has been empowering mankind since Adam and Eve. The written word has preceded all the world’s drastic social changes and revolutions – and it is for this reason that education was purposefully withheld from the slaves to the extent of criminalizing it in most Southern states. Authorities realized that an ignorant populace was easily manipulated, which became an increasingly important factor by the 19th century, when the slave population of many Southern states outnumbered the whites. A policy of minimalizing education of African-Americans, thus minimizing their potential, would continue even after emancipation. It shows in the continued disproportionate educational statistics between Blacks and whites.

In the Gypsy community, education was more or less viewed as a tool of the majority towards influencing their children away from the community towards assimilation. As a result, Gypsy parents often removed their children from school at a very young age, a custom that continues to this day.

Authorities realized that an ignorant populace was easily manipulated.

The illiteracy factor in both African American and Gypsy communities directed the passing of knowledge and customs to future generations through folktales and ballads like “John Henry” about the value of the working man and “Jimmy Cracked Corn,” the viewpoint of a Black slave both mourning and rejoicing his master’s death:

When I was young, I used to wait

On the boss and hand him his plate

And pass down the bottle when he got dry

And brush away the blue tail fly.

Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care, …

My trouble’s gone away.

Gypsies meanwhile reminisce about the slowly disappearing nomadic life in “Trec Tsigani” (“Move Along, Gypsy”):

A Gypsy plays his violin like fire.

Move on, Gypsy, move on.

Never stay at one place too long.

Don’t stop.

They love to hear the violin,

Hear the beat of the drum,

The singer’s soothing voice,

The violin, the nightingale,

The sweet voice of a baby.

That special bond all Gypsies share with their community is the subject of the popular traditional song, “A Gypsy Has a House,” about a Gypsy woman who runs away to marry a wealthy landowner yet returns after being unable to shake the emotional ties to the community.

She pulled all the hair out of her head.

She never wanted fortune,

Nor wealth of any kind.

She has now returned back home

And is more beautiful than ever.

It is the musical proficiency that forms one of the most celebrated African American and Gypsy cultural similarities. Together they have produced some of the world’s most influential musicians like Scott Joplin, Leadbelly, Nat King Cole, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, gospel music and the Motown sound right into the 21st century influences of hip hop.

Gypsy musicians by Chuck TodaroThe Gypsies have brought us Barbu Lautari, influencer of Franz Liszt, the innovative jazz artist Django Reinhardt, internationally renowned Gipsy Kings, charismatic all-brass Gypsy band sound – and today’s “vulgar” yet widely popular new Gypsy music known as Manele.

To this day, Gypsy music is still music without notation, as it was and sometimes still is in the African American community. Gypsy musicians can neither read nor write a single note. “Gypsy music is all about improvisation,” says Kaliu Gheorghe, lead violinist of the famed Taraf de Haidouks. “It’s about how well you can improve on an old line. I listen to a Hungarian or Russian tune and then play it in Gypsy style – and out flows your Gypsy spirit.”

Music and dance has been a central component of the African American and Gypsy experience since the beginning. It’s perhaps the only custom of their homeland they preserved under the strict puritanical traditions they encountered. The music brought solace during troubled times and then later proved to be one of the only means of escaping the ghetto. It was also the music and dance that the African American church incorporated into their style of worship – and subsequently this joy filled seats at Sunday services, making African American religious service participation higher than any other race.

It is the musical proficiency that forms one of the most celebrated African American and Gypsy cultural similarities.

The Black church catalyzed the scattered African American minority into a unbreakable bond like the bundle of sticks proverb. From the pulpit developed great civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Jesse Jackson, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, whose passionate orations inspired congregations to stand up for themselves and bring about change.

Gypsy power graphic 'Opre Roma' ('Stand up, Roma')Not surprisingly, a similar pattern is beginning to take shape in Gypsy communities across Romania. Since the collapse of communism and return of religious freedom, waves of evangelical churches began setting up in the segregated Gypsy communities. The Gypsy church began unifying a population broken apart by a hierarchical caste system dating back to their Indian roots.

A simultaneous surge of social activism in the schools and non-governmental organizations has started mobilizing Gypsies of all the various tribes behind inspirational slogans sounding not unlike the African American “We shall overcome” and “Black power.” “Opre Roma,” say the Gypsies – “Stand up, Roma!”

Chuck Todaro is a freelance journalist residing in Romania with the Transylvanian “Gypsies,” where he runs the day to day operations of the Gypsy Project: Tzigania, He can be reached at