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Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

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In the final years of the nineteenth century, small groups of Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island every summer, bags heavy with embroidered silks from their home villages in Bengal. The American demand for Oriental goods took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey's beach boardwalks into the heart of the segregated South. Two decades later, hundreds of Indian Muslim seamen began jumping ship in New York and Baltimore, escaping the engine rooms of British steamers to find less brutal work onshore. As factory owners sought their labor and anti-Asian immigration laws closed in around them, these men built clandestine networks that stretched from the northeastern waterfront across the industrial Midwest.

The stories of these early working-class migrants vividly contrast with our typical understanding of immigration. Vivek Bald's meticulous reconstruction reveals a lost history of South Asian sojourning and life-making in the United States. At a time when Asian immigrants were vilified and criminalized, Bengali Muslims quietly became part of some of America's most iconic neighborhoods of color, from Treme in New Orleans to Detroit's Black Bottom, from West Baltimore to Harlem. Many started families with Creole, Puerto Rican, and African American women.

As steel and auto workers in the Midwest, as traders in the South, and as halal hot dog vendors on 125th Street, these immigrants created lives as remarkable as they are unknown. Their stories of ingenuity and intermixture challenge assumptions about assimilation and reveal cross-racial affinities beneath the surface of early twentieth-century America.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2013

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About the author

Vivek Bald

4 books11 followers
Vivek Bald is Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the director of the documentary films Taxi-vala/Auto-biography and Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, and is working on a film based on Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.

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Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews
Profile Image for Sookie.
1,139 reviews86 followers
September 5, 2020
An account on Bengali immigrants to USA starting late 1880s. As the author notes, a lot of history is lost but what remains, Vivek Bald has wrapped it all in this collection. The final two chapters are anecdotal recounts of those who lived through 50s and 60s.

Some important dates:
• Beginning sometime in the 1880s, Muslim peddlers from a cluster of villages just north of Calcutta began traveling to the United States to sell “Oriental goods”—embroidered cotton and silk, small rugs, perfumes, and a range of other items.
• From 1889 onward, the peddlers’ voyages became more regular and their population in the United States increased. In the 1890s, groups of chikondars arrived at Ellis Island like clockwork during the first half of each summer season, on their way to the New Jersey boardwalks to sell their wares.
• In 1900, the federal census recorded twelve men from “Hindoostan” living in New Orleans. All were members of the peddler network—men who had begun making trips through Ellis Island in the 1880s and 1890s to peddle goods on the New Jersey seaside. 
• By the 1910s, Hooghly’s peddlers were traveling extensively through the United States, the Caribbean, and Central America. 
• Between the 1890s and the 1920s, as the policing of immigration shifted from the regime of the Alien Contract Labor Law to that of the explicitly exclusionary Immigration Act of 1917 (also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act), these men built upon existing ties of kinship and newly established connections within U.S. communities of color to build, maintain, and expand their operations.
• The 1917 Immigration Act made East Indians equivalent in the eyes of the law to alcoholics, “professional beggars,” and the insane; all were undesirable aliens, to be turned away at the borders.
• In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court added a further layer to the exclusion regime by ruling that those East Indians who were already resident in the United States were racially ineligible to become U.S. citizens.
• During the 1920s and 30s, some of the largest populations of Indian factory workers were in these more distant locations: particularly Buffalo and Detroit.
• But restaurants were the most common venture that Indian ex-seamen pursued when they could gather the wherewithal, and by the 1940s and 1950s, several men had opened establishments locally in Harlem as well as in the Theater District in midtown Manhattan.
As they grew up in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, they shared in and were formed by the pleasures, possibilities, and struggles of Puerto Rican and African American New York.
Profile Image for Aliya.
47 reviews
January 20, 2015
A fascinating look at the South Asian and multiracial experience in the United States from the early 20th century, a history that has been almost completely forgotten but has played a role in the lives and future generations of so many. As the child of Bengali immigrants who came to the U.S. post-1965 for education, this book opened my eyes to the generations of Bengalis who came here before my parents, who came here for other purposes, who lived integrated lives with the African American, Creole, Puerto Rican and other minority neighborhoods and became a part of the familial communities that have shaped this country's history.

One of the best conclusive quotes of the book: "The image represents an idea that in the give-and-take of daily life, the experience of encountering, living among, and even conflicting with one another might lead different groups toward new understandings of community, shared struggle, and shared purpose."
Profile Image for Ken Puddicombe.
Author 12 books9 followers
September 16, 2015
This is not just an admirable research into the lives of South East Asians who came to the USA at the turn of the twentieth century, but it explores the impact they had on society and the discrimination they faced during a period when U.S. Immigration policy blatantly excluded people of colour. Recommended for all history buffs.
Profile Image for Jeffrey.
164 reviews
May 30, 2021
Always amazes me what we don’t know what we don’t know, especially when it involves Black America and other people and cultures of color the world over. All the things squashed, deliberately whitewashed and buried. All the things we never learned or heard about in white educational systems. This book will enlighten you on one segment of the buried information for one group of people of color. This is a must read! Period
Profile Image for Jessica Zu.
1,111 reviews125 followers
May 8, 2021
impressive! totally changed the way I think of immigration in america ... and the role of black communities in immigration
Profile Image for Caitlin.
85 reviews5 followers
August 23, 2021
really good! the title is a bit misleading because it basically covers all of the United States except the west coast and half of the book is about Bengali immigrants in New Orleans
Profile Image for Selima Kabir.
Author 1 book4 followers
June 18, 2020
In the weeks following George Floyd's death—murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds—the conversation around diversity and inclusion has returned to the forefront, as has the role that persons of colour can play in challenging White supremacy. The events unfolding now merit revisiting author-filmmaker Vivek Bald's Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (2013), to remind ourselves why we owe allyship and solidarity to the Black community.

- Full review on Daily Star Books, The Daily Star, Dhaka Bangladesh.
Profile Image for Jasmine Pulley.
38 reviews1 follower
July 24, 2022
“This groups inclusion in the American story requires us to reimagine the structure of the early-twentieth century migrant experience to recognize the kinds of transnational lives, connections, and dynamics we normally only associate with the present day.“

Bengali Harlem chronicles the histories of two separate but interconnected groups of Indian (primarily Bengali) immigrants to the US starting from around 1880s to 1930s. The first group was a smaller group of individual peddlers, or merchants who came legally and through Ellis island, to sell goods produced at home at a time when America was increasingly interested in the “exotic” orient. They sold these goods in cities along the northeast, such as Atlantic City, as they became vacation hubs amongst the newly emergent middle class, and would then migrate south to cities like New Orleans during the colder months. They became intertwined with the lives of local African Americans as these were the neighborhoods they were permitted to sleep in at night due to segregation at the time, but at the same time, enjoyed certain privileges allotted to them for being Asian, fitting into a paradigm that white Americans had not yet fully categorized. Some of these men were even able to become naturalized citizens at a time when it was still allowed. Soon after, immigration laws tightened specifically targeting asian immigration, and these Indians had to find more creative ways to find work in America.

This began the second wave of Bengali immigrants. These began around 1910 and continued on until past the First World War. During this time, laws were in full force restricting immigrants from Asian nations, yet these Indians would desert the slave-like conditions of British owned ships entering US Atlantic harbors, by either diving off board or simply not returning during short harbor visits. It is important to note that these immigration restrictions were explicitly race based, drawn to limit or altogether exclude more immigrants from asia, such as the Chinese exclusion act of 1917. The immigrants created expansive networks used to help one another desert and find better onshore work at US factories. Interestingly enough, while the laws against desertion claimed to be incredibly stringent during this time, many whom the Indian labor benefitted simply looked the other way. Indians and other immigrants were used by American factories as strike breakers from other European immigrant union workers, and paid meager sums in doing so. Additionally, the labor came in use during the First World War when industry turned sharply towards wartime manufacturing. The Bengali men who arrived during this time period truly lived a “lost history,” as the subtitle mentions. These men did not live in exclusive Indian enclaves where they mixed only with their own race, but rather lived very entwined within local African American, Puerto Rican, and mixed race immigrant communities, often marrying women of those races. Their children then often straddled two worlds, feeling Bengali at home but often assimilating more into the neighborhoods in cities they were brought up. Eventually, this generation of men either returned to India, or passed away, and their histories are very much unknown to most Indian diaspora in the US today.

The book would have been much more interesting if it were able to follow a more narrative structure, but given the mostly archival nature of these histories, the author had to piece together sparse documents, letters, censuses, and immigration records to connect his research. In that way, the information presented was interesting, but at times a bit dry. Overall, appreciate the work put forth to dig through a very lesser known fragment of American history.
Profile Image for Matthew Rohn.
305 reviews6 followers
November 8, 2022
This is an interesting book that's clearly made a very interesting historical find, but throughout the book a lack of contextualization and engagement with broader U.S. immigration history and African American history (as well as many places where the limited available sources seem not fully utilized) make it very clear how even though this book is good it is very far from hitting its potential ceiling
Profile Image for Affad Shaikh.
97 reviews10 followers
June 10, 2018
Simply a beautiful enlightening read on a micro history that for all purposes should be completely forgotten, yet so very meticulously pieced together and cleverly presented by Vivek Bald. I got a loaner copy from the Los Angeles County Library, but it deserves to be kept on my shelf and re-read and explored further, so I purchased a copy for myself.
Profile Image for Jaylani Adam.
110 reviews7 followers
February 7, 2022
Love this book. It explained well how Indians and the Bengalis came to America and intermingled with the non-white communities. However, I wish that the author did more research into if the Bengalis and Punjabis were from which part of their respective regions e.g. Pakistan or India for Punjabis or India or Bangladesh for Bengalis in modern sense.
Profile Image for William.
299 reviews88 followers
January 6, 2018
An important topic, but incredibly dry because there is so little archival material that the author is actually drawing upon. It feels like it's reading a whole lot of nothing. A critical effort nonetheless.
Profile Image for Anna.
197 reviews13 followers
July 18, 2019
a fantastic and informative account.
Profile Image for Sterling Hardaway.
109 reviews14 followers
May 2, 2020
Great introduction and overview to a community and part of American history often overlooked
Profile Image for Wendy Hu-Au.
54 reviews6 followers
March 23, 2022
Fascinating history of Indian merchants in the early 20th century disrupting the Black-white racial binary and becoming a part of the fabric of communities from New Orleans to East Harlem.
Profile Image for Aditya.
8 reviews4 followers
July 24, 2013
Very repetitive to start, but gets to the heart of the historical account in the last two chapters. Great research and recovery of a lost history.
Profile Image for Chup.
14 reviews
November 20, 2021
Something about reading about working class Bengali villagers strewn across these particular spaces in these particular times just fills me with wonder and kind of makes me want to cry
369 reviews5 followers
May 9, 2022
An excellent ethnography that is historically rich and compassionately written.
Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews

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