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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 India 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.


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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 India 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.

30 review for Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

  1. 4 out of 5

    Sookie

    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, an 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Aliya

    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, Creol 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."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ken Puddicombe

    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.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jeffrey

    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

  5. 5 out of 5

    Caitlin

    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

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jessica Zu

    impressive! totally changed the way I think of immigration in america ... and the role of black communities in immigration

  7. 5 out of 5

    Selima Kabir

    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 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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Mona

    .

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ashley Hajimirsadeghi

    Very good read about a fascinating time in history. Had no idea about the first-wave of Bengali immigrants and how they managed to assimilate mainly into BIPOC communities, nor about the discrimination this particular group faced. Quite informative, although it mainly focuses on the New Orleans community.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Affad Shaikh

    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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    William

    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. 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.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    a fantastic and informative account.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sterling Hardaway

    Great introduction and overview to a community and part of American history often overlooked

  14. 5 out of 5

    Iman Korenic

    An eye opening account of the history of South Asians in the United States.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mohsin Mirza

    Unforgettable, a must read for South Asians in America

  16. 5 out of 5

    Aditya

    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.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dinu

  18. 4 out of 5

    Rozina

  19. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jaci (Ms. Darcy Reads)

  21. 4 out of 5

    Fazeela

  22. 5 out of 5

    Keondra Freemyn

  23. 5 out of 5

    Whit

  24. 4 out of 5

    Athena

  25. 5 out of 5

    Virginia Downey

  26. 5 out of 5

    Vyasar Ganesan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Annesha

  28. 5 out of 5

    Irs Sandasiri

  29. 5 out of 5

    Naina Z.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Mikelle

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