Men, Prayer, Politics, Horses, Detroit
Tyson who? Tyson Fury, boxing’s new Heavy Weight Champion of the World. In case you were preoccupied elsewhere, the world of boxing got turned upside down November 28th in Dusseldorf, Germany. The long reigning champ, Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, lost by unanimous decision after 12 technically complex yet somewhat dull rounds. Fury, the 6’9″ tall, 27 year old from Lancashire U.K. maintained control of the ring from the first round, the result of years of training and, according to his father John Fury, divine destiny.
At first measure, Fury has all the ingredients of a superstar: humble beginnings, rugged good looks, adoring family, astonishing talent and a flamboyant personality that is just unpredictable enough to keep the cameras rolling. As with another flamboyant champion from years past, the great, make that The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, there is a back story to Tyson Fury that renders his arrival on the world stage at this point in history a most fortuitous destiny.
Muhammad Ali carved a powerful figure in the boxing ring, yet, as Tyson appears to be destined, Ali took his battle beyond the ring. He rose to the historical challenges of the times as a black man, as a religious convert and as a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam. Perhaps most importantly, he transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so. In the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to define the terms of his public reputation.
Just as Ali navigated his place in history and changed the public perception of black athletes forever, so to might Tyson Fury change the public perception of Romani and Orthodox Catholic as well. While Ali has lived to see the struggle for racial equality mature, for Tyson Fury and his fellow Romani, the world remains a hostile environment, filled with seemingly insurmountable hate and relentless prejudice.
I had the privilege of traveling to Amsterdam in 2009 to interview Tyson Fury’s cousin, British filmmaker Caleb Botton. I knew prior to the interview that Botton was Romani, but could find little research with which to prepare other than folk tales, most of which served to illustrate the stereotypical perceptions of Roma as thieves, cons, fake fortune tellers and Godless dirty hustlers. Slowly and with caution, Mr. Botton, a devout Orthodox Catholic himself, opened up about his experience as a boy growing up in the secret world of the Roma. He shared heartbreaking stories of prejudice, alienation and rejection:
“Gypsy? It’s blood. It’s a race of people. We are originally from India…and thrown out of India by the Muslims. They came and because we wouldn’t worship Allah, we worshiped fire and shiny things and would not capitulate, they murdered us. So we migrated and we’ve been migrating for years. We have our own language, Romany. There are three tribes: the Kalderash, the Sinti and the Manoush. You can tell who we are by our looks and our last names. There were more of us, proportionately, exterminated by the Germans during the war than Jews. Gypsies still do not have any rights. You can go into England today, 2009, and you will see signs in bars saying ‘No Gypsies’. Not ‘No Blacks’ or ‘No Jews’ or No Pakistanis’, just ‘No Gypsies’ – today, 2009.” -Caleb Botton
As the world of the Roma is revealed through the celebration of our new Heavy Weight Champion of the World in the months ahead, the question becomes: Will we see this racism and prejudice against the Romani for what it is: unacceptable? Will terms such as ‘dirty gypsy’ or ‘pikey‘ or ‘tinker‘ become shunned in the press just as the equally offensive term ‘nigger‘ has?
With Tyson Fury’s win, we are given the opportunity to see into the private lives of the single most openly oppressed ethnic group in the world, a people for which abominable racism remains a devastating, current and crippling reality. For a people who have lived beyond borders, according to their own laws for centuries, in defiance of grotesque persecution and oppression, the ways of the Romani emerge in these times of seemingly endless ethnic and religious warfare as a refreshing beacon, a way of being in the world that is nothing short of admirable: a daily rejection of hate, a call to return to the core values of family, faith and acceptance of racial and cultural differences.
As with the great Muhammed Ali who opened our eyes then to the struggle for racial equality in his time, perhaps Tyson Fury and his family will open our eyes to the senseless persecution of the Roma in our time.
© 2015 Nancy Kotting All Rights Reserved Reproduction by Permission Only