Dr Ian Hancock: Romani scholar, activist and highschool dropout|
Perhaps the world's best-known Romani scholar, Dr Ian Hancock never
graduated from high school. A ninth-grade dropout, he nevertheless became
the first Roma in British history to receive a PhD. Brian Kenety caught up
with the visiting scholar in Prague this week.
Admitted to a doctoral program at London University some 40 years ago on
the strength of his extraordinary gift for linguistics and as part of
Prime Minister Harold Wilson's fledgling experiment with "affirmative
action" Dr Ian Hancock has since devoted much of his adult life to
dispelling ignorance about the ethnic group into which he was born.
He has represented the Roma people at the United Nations and as a member
of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. The noted linguist is founder and
director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at the University
of Texas at Austin, where he has been a professor of English, linguistics
and Asian studies since 1972.
Growing up in England, Professor Hancock was told to hide his Roma or
"Gypsy" identity; now he celebrates his ethnic heritage and has
made it his mission in life to help ensure that future generations of Roma
do the same.
"I now, as I look back on my life, find it very sad that I was told
to hide my identity not many ethnic groups are told: 'pretend to be
something else' and to me this is very, very sad. We have to stop this;
we have to feel better about ourselves before other people can feel better
"Now, how do we, as Romani people, begin to make these changes?
Parents, even if they have other priorities in their lives, should be
aware of the value of education for their children. They might not see
changes within their lifetime, but their children will, and their
children's children will, even more."
Dr Hancock was in the Czech Republic this week as part of a visiting
scholars' program funded by the U.S. Department of State, through which he
will also travel to Slovakia. He is meeting with Romani students and
organizations, delivering lectures on Romani history at several
universities, and consulting with government officials working on Roma
Prof Hancock, the author of hundreds of articles and books, has written a
handbook called "We are the Romani People" which is designed to
help instill a sense of pride in young Roma. It also serves as a guide for
teachers and social workers working with the community to help them better
understand the group's history a history of persecution, he says, but
also of triumph.
"If you look at the facts of Romani history; it's pretty sad. There
has been the slavery that I mentioned, the Holocaust, the transportations,
the sterilizations, the mass killings, the pogroms; and, we're still here.
We still have our identity - without a country, without an army, without a
government, without an economy - we're still here. We have our language and
our culture; and to me, this is a triumph of survival."
Dr Hancock sees education as the key to improving the socioeconomic status
of the Roma. He says it is equally important that the community do more to
help itself including raising funds and regrets that many "Roma
initiatives" are organized or run by non-Roma.
"Personally, this is an embarrassment to me. It would be a good place
to start - in the direction of being self-sufficient - if, for example,
money for a prize could be generated within the Czech-Romani population to
recognize an outstanding Romani student."