London, 1971: The First World Roma Congress

For the past seven years, the Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights has marked International Roma Day. In a guest blog, writer and activist Grattan Puxon (pictured above) explains the history of this important day.

An excerpt of the blog is below. To read the full blog post, click here.

An Account of the First World Roma Congress Held in London in 1971

By Grattan Puxon | Harvard FXB Guest Writer

They met at a small boarding school in a suburb of South London, most unknown to each other before that long April weekend in 1971. By the end of it, delegates to the First World War Congress had set a nation-in-birth on a new political path. What occurred at Cannock House has been obscured by the now legendary status of that gathering, today celebrated by communities scattered across four continents.

A participant at the Congress, I here attempt, fifty years later, to reveal something of its intent and achievement, and of the personalities of the delegates themselves. Separated by the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, they travelled to this unique event to affirm a common ethnic identity. They had to contend with a diversified culture; a language half could not speak and a wished-for unity that still today proves elusive.

Yet decisions taken at Cannock House are now deemed irreversible. For those currently active in the movement that coming together is the foundation stone. Tentative steps had been taken at pre-war Bucharest congress. But of tries then and since, London is the one that counts. Decades later, Margareta Matache, Director of the Roma Program at Harvard, could confirm that was when Roma chose the mantle and symbols of nationhood; adopted a unifying flag, an anthem and a national day. Zeljko Jovanovic, head of the Open Society Foundation’s Roma Initiatives, has written of the Congress as historic for every one of twenty million Roma in a global diaspora. Nothing, he has written, could oblige us to mark April 8 [its opening day] more than the moral imperative and hunger for self-definition.

The Romani flag has become ubiquitous and the conviction that the London Congress marked a vital stage in the emergence of the Roma Nation rests unshakable. People must have their symbols and their heroes. A rule perhaps the more indelible for a nation without claim to homeland. Nowadays April 8 has become the occasion for the European Union’s Roma Summits; for debate in the British House of Lords. Statements have been made on this date by Hillary Clinton while US Secretary of State. And there is much other official fanfare. However, within the fulsome recognition lies hidden a subtle downgrading of what Congress intended. For the ownership of Roma Nation Day is frequently replaced by a tamer, subsidized International Roma Day. Or even simply a Roma Day. As if for those 24 hours, an amnesty applies, and officialdom sets aside black prejudice.

Thus, I am one to conclude that whenever and wherever the flag flies for International Roma Day, there is the danger that the heritage of the founding Congress is weakened; the Roma Nation denied.

Let’s examine this further. In post-war West Germany it was denied Gypsies had faced collective extermination under Nazi race laws. Courts rested their case on the classification of Roma as asocials. Claims were summarily rejected. Is the situation much better today when it’s argued Roma pose primarily a social problem? The word Gypsy may have been banned from the conference table and published research. But the designation Roma Nation rarely features. Thus, collective aspirations continue to be thwarted. Politicians want to see the arrival of the Roma Nation stalled. In an era that has seen the cause of human rights fade and neo-fascism flourish, such politicians are emboldened.

Nevertheless, it’s evident the significance of 8 April expands each year. Whilst ideas born of the Congress have a centrifugal force on the World Wide Web. An intention to pursue self-determination; a declaration of nationhood by a nation without borders and no claim to territory may sound like impossible ideals. But in an age of ethnic-identity politics and the blurring of ideologies, a nationalism which challenges orthodoxy and reaches for collective civil rights might expect to meet tolerance. In these novel circumstances, plenty believe the day of the Roma nation will come.

Suffice to acknowledge in 1971 process was set in train. For a start the Congress set about sweeping away misnomers which have signified for centuries denigration, marginalization and exclusion. The words cigani, Zigeuner, gipsy; each has been a pitch-cap, a torture tool suffered for generations enslaved in Balkan Europe, man-hunted in Prussia and Tudor England. They may continue to disfigure the Roma profile, but no longer go unchallenged.

At the time of the Congress, movement in Europe was hampered by barbed-wire and ideologies at a war-footing enmity. Behind the Iron Curtain, wheels had been taken from wagons and nomadism outlawed. In the West too, Gypsies were being banned from the road and their camps destroyed. Except for a brief period in the Soviet Union, the promotion of Roma as a recognized nationality had become taboo. In the West the notion was unknown. Instead, folklorists featured the Romanies as a dying breed.

So it is that this humble affair in an obscure private school, that at the time garnered minimal media attention and of which few photographs exists, has been elevated in importance. The Congress sessions, its projected commissions, an excursion to Birmingham to protest the death of children in a trailer fire, and a culminating pre-billed Gypsy Festival featuring Raya, a former artists of the Moscow Romen Theatre, have since been parceled up, of necessity, into a people’s epic. For activists in the Romani movement today (back then the term “activist” hardly existed) the Congress is the greatest happening yet. Nothing quite like it had happened since the exodus from India.

Tentative steps had been taken at a pre-war Bucharest congress, where a blue and green flag had been displayed. However, it is London that counts.

The author, Grattan Puxon, a writer and activist, was in large part responsible for organizing the Ist World Roma Congress and elected its general-secretary. Today April 8th is widely celebrated as Roma Nation Day. In 1972, Puxon and Donald Kendrick co-authored the first comprehensive account of the Roma genocide, under the title “Destiny of Europe’s Gypsie”[Published by Basic Books, New York, as part of the Columbus Centre Series edited by Norman Cohn]. It has since appeared in eight languages, the Romani translation by Puxon in two editions, the second in the Interface Collection produced by University of Hertfordshire Press in 1995. Puxon is chair of the Democratic Transition, working to introduce a new electronic voting system to increase the legitimacy and political clout of the International Romani Union and the broader pro-Roma movement.