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Studying the Romani Experience in the Modern Metropolis

Research focuses on the Romani community in London 


Ethel Brooks couldn’t help but take it personally when she learned of a Romani, or Gypsy, community in London that was uprooted by government authorities to make room for the 2012 Olympics.

Brooks, a professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies in the School of Arts and Sciences, is of British Romani descent and has her own painful memories of community dissolution.

While growing up in New Hampshire, some of Brooks' great aunts and uncles in neighboring Massachusetts were forced to relocate when their property, known as Gypsy Hill, was seized through eminent domain for the construction of subsidized housing. 

“It was the place where we all met, the place where you could see all the family,” Brooks said. “For a community that was spread throughout the Northeast, and into the South, it was one of the spots where you knew you could go.”

“After that, we met at funerals,” she said.

Now, having won a prestigious fellowship, Brooks is conducting a multilayered research project that will explore the experience of the Romani people in London, and draw connections to similar communities in the U.S. and Europe.    

Brooks was awarded a Fulbright University of the Arts London Distinguished Chair Award.  She’s spending the 2011-2012 academic year at the University of the Arts Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation, or TrAIN.  Her research project - Visual Practices, Cultural Production and the Right to the City: Romani Gypsies as Cosmopolitan Others - will look at what it means to be a Romani citizen in a modern, multicultural metropolis like London.

The Romanies, or Roma, originated on the Indian subcontinent and migrated westward early in the second millennium, about 1,000 years ago. Some branches reached Europe in the 1500s, where they endured persecution and attempts at ethnic cleansing. It culminated in the Holocaust, when Nazis murdered 70 to 80 percent of the Romani population in Europe.

The more recent dispersal of the Romani community in London occurred against the backdrop of a rising tide of anti-immigrant and anti-Romani measures throughout Europe.

Brooks said her research will go beyond chronicling persecution by looking at the Romani experience in its many dimensions - through work, culture and mass media.

“I want to ask: ‘What would London look like if its story and its history were told from a Romani perspective?’” Brooks said. “I think about London as a Romani city, even at this particular moment when we have a lot of tensions.”

Her research will include ethnographic methods – first-person interviews and site visits, or as Brooks puts it, “Hanging out with people and seeing how they live.” She will also make use of public archives, property records, censuses and legal documents to illustrate the topography of the Romani experience. The project will also have a strong visual component that will include analyses of photographs, maps, paintings and objects that illustrate Romani cultural practices.

Perhaps one of the most important tasks Brooks has set for herself is to examine the work of the Romanies, which includes horse breeding and trading, and paving. The topic connects Brooks to her own upbringing, and she hopes her research will put an end to old canards.

“During periods of persecution, people act out of this notion that Roma aren’t contributing,” Brooks said. “This goes back to my childhood, because I can remember seeing how hard everyone worked, but in ways that were not always recognized.” 

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