Why we’re telling the story of slavery

A manifesto for telling the truth about the enslavement of the Roma in Romanian territories for nearly five centuries.

Magda Matache is the director of the Roma Program at Harvard and a Roma rights activist. After leading the NGO Romani CRISS for seven years and playing a central role in projects for the desegregation of Roma children, Magda left for the United States in 2012 on a scholarship. There, Magda began researching the social and economic gap created by 500 years of enslavement, and her work shifted in the direction of anti-racism and reparations. Magda agreed to curate this series in order to remind us that the first step to healing any wound of the past must be acknowledgment and the acceptance of responsibility by authorities and citizens alike.

This essay is part of a project called The Way of the Land, a journalistic initiative documenting the impact of 500 years of Roma slavery on relationships between Romanians and Roma today.

National and nationalistic myths often take precedence over historical truth in Romania. The consequences of these myths, which become much more pronounced in times of uncertainty and populism, are reflected in the values, behaviors, and spirit of society, and in education as a whole.

The series The Way of the Land, written 636 years after the first written attestation of the enslavement of Roma people and 166 years after its official abolition, is our manifesto for and contribution toward the truth about the history of the Roma people enslaved over the course of five centuries – a history which was and continues to be denied, ignored, and distorted in the recounting of our national history.

This series comes after over three decades of post-communist Roma activism and artivism during which a large number of Roma scholars, artists, activists and allies set the foundation for understanding the history of slavery through their contributions of archival documents, books and articles, laws and memorial plaques, documentaries and films, and educational materials. However, similar to the fate of Roma people themselves, many of them were excluded and pushed to the margins of history and national conversations.

The series can’t replace the role of historians, museums, monuments, history books, and textbooks which can – and must – correct the distorted myths about the enslavement of Roma people. But our essays call for situating the history of slavery as a fundamental element of our national history and recuperate and rediscover the stories of our ancestors who were enslaved.

Contributing to this series and feeling the weight of responsibility with each word, I often noticed the lack of progress in both the spirit as well as the language of anti-racism in the Romanian context. In the Romanian language, we have no commonly used terms for reparations (intended to cover a series of reparative measures which a state and a society can undertake) or dismemory (the attempt, as a society, to erase the history of an entire group). Our language lacks the nuance found in global academic spaces, where, for example, the term agreed upon in our days is enslaved people, not slaves, because the term enslaved (forced to become a slave) also calls attention to the act and culpability of forcing someone into slavery, not only to the status of slave. In Romania, the enslavers (those who forced people into slavery and held them there) are still timidly called “boyars,” the nobility.

We hope that this series can open the door for nuance and accurate concepts in Romanian speech, public accounts, and written texts, and, even more so, in anti-racist actions.

The voices included in the following pages are diverse: not only in terms of tone, but also in the perspectives of their personal experiences, opinions, and schools of thought. These different perspectives enrich the series. However, I made certain choices for consistency (writing “Roma,” and not “Rroma”) and choices which I hope will be adopted by others as well: “sclavie” (slavery/enslavement) instead of “robie” (bondage), since it’s a more accurate description of the fact that we’re talking about people who were made to be the property of other people, not just economically dependent on them.

Likewise, I also wanted to call attention to the offensive word we still use in Romania without giving it too much thought. The word is “ț*gan” (G*psy), which was a synonym for an enslaved person, and which I’ve chosen to appear with an * (with the exception of quotes from documents and manuscripts). I did this because this word causes many of us, especially when thinking about the memory of our ancestors, pain, and humiliation.

Our ancestors were enslaved for 500 years. Our hope is that their memory may be kept not only by people who are Roma, but by all of us, Romanian citizens, because together we bear the responsibility of maintaining historic truth and redressing the past.

This essay was also published in print in DoR #46, as part of a series curated by Margareta (Magda) Matache, the director of the Roma Program at Harvard and a Roma rights activist. Because healing the wounds of the past has to start with recognition and reconciliation.