Uncovering Multiracial South Asian America: A Review of Vivek Bald's Bengali Harlem

Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Harvard UP, 2013)


Vivek Bald's book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America challenges a long-standing assumption in South Asian American historiography: namely, that very few South Asian laborers entered the country between the passage of the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act and the "reopening" of the nation's borders with the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. While the little-known histories of South Asian working-class migrants who continued to enter the country in the shadow of America's restricitve immigration laws have essentially been lost to South Aisan American history, Bald's work shows that there has been an unbroken stream of South Asian migration to the United States that continued throughout the exclusion era.

But Bengali Harlem is more than an excavation of histories that have yet to receive their full due. By tracing the South Asian American presence in neighborhoods like Treme in New Orleans, Harlem in New York, and Black Bottom in Detroit, Bald focuses on the forging of multiracial communities in early South Asian America. Bald’s history of the lives of a hidden population of South Asian laborers is an act of historical recovery that necessitates a reconsideration of what South Asian American history looks like and where it was lived out. His account takes our gaze away from the Canadian and U.S. West, where the majority of Indians who came to North America lived and worked in the early decades of the twentieth century, and towards neighborhoods of color across the American South, the industrial Midwest, and the East Coast. The arrival of South Asians on the Pacific Coast was preceded by groups of Bengali Muslim peddlers in the 1880s that circulated between the boardwalks of New Jersey and the streets of southern cities like New Orleans, selling embroidered silks and other “exotic” goods that satisfied the desire of the American public for all things “Indian” and “Oriental.” Four decades later, while in New York City, hundreds of South Asian seamen left their jobs under the British Empire in search of higher wages in the U.S. and an escape from brutal labor conditions. They first began deserting British ships during World War I, when there was a demand for their labor in U.S. munitions, shipbuilding, and steel factories. They created a network that connected multiple sites of industrial production from Patterson, New Jersey to Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan. Those who jumped ship after WWI entered the service economy and worked as line cooks, dishwashers, doormen, and elevator operators. Though most returned to the subcontinent, some stayed and became part of working-class neighborhoods of color by marrying local women, having children, and developing African American, Puerto Rican, and West Indian extended families.

While the numbers of these peddlers and ex-seamen were small, Bald contends that the historical significance of these communities was not. He argues that these histories force us to reconsider deeply held assumptions about U.S. immigration history. The reason these peddlers and ex-seamen have been “lost” to history is because popular understandings, expectations, and myths about immigration to the United States render them invisible or illegible. These were not one-way migrations in pursuit of the American Dream.  These were global labor migrations in which sojourning laborers, whose traditional means of livelihood had been disrupted by colonization, industrialization, and the mechanization of agriculture, traversed the world and followed the shifting demands of the U.S. market and other economies.

As Bald’s book demonstrates, it is impossible to find the South Asian America of the pre-1965 era if what we are searching for is a neatly delineated ethnic neighborhood with clear borders. South Asians were embedded within spaces where we might not think to look, specifically, within Puerto Rican America, Afro-Caribbean America, and African America. These neighborhoods of color fostered interactions between different working-class migrants who were largely unable to fully access the national promise of inclusion. Indeed, the histories of early South Asian Americans contest the all-too-familiar narratives of assimilation and social and economic mobility premised on appeals to whiteness that continue to dominate the telling of immigration histories. At a time when the United States closed its doors to these immigrants, neighborhoods like Harlem provided possibilities for them to build lives and communities. By uncovering the histories of these multiracial neighborhoods, Bald offers us alternative interpretations of the practices and meanings of community for South Asians who lived their lives in neighborhoods of color across the American South, Midwest, and East Coast. It was in these neighborhoods that South Asians were able to carve out spaces in which to pursue the promises that the government of the U.S. had failed to uphold.


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