Bengali Harlem, a book and an upcoming documentary slated for a PBS broadcast in 2021, offers a glimpse into a South Asian American past that has received very little attention. Complicating the conventional understanding of South Asians in the United States, it explores the ‘lost’ histories of a wave of South Asian immigrants who moved to the United States between the 1880s and the 1950s – a period when the US had technically closed its doors to Asian immigrants.
The book tracks how small groups of Muslim traders made their way into New York’s Ellis Island every summer with “Oriental goods” from their home villages in late 19th century Bengal, embarking on a curious journey to the American South. Later, in the early 20th century, hundreds of Indian Muslim seamen would jump ship in cities like New York City and Baltimore, escaping the gruelling conditions of British steamships to create new lives for themselves in a foreign land, and often marry into African-American and Puerto Rican families.
Amid anti-immigration laws and rising anti-Asian sentiment in the US, these working-class South Asians built networks that were neglected by the officially documented waves of history of South Asian immigration after the 1950s.
Scroll.in spoke to Vivek Bald, the author of Bengali Harlem, who is a researcher, writer, and documentary filmmaker focussing on histories of migration and diaspora from South Asia. An associate professor of Writing and Digital Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bald himself is a second-generation Indian whose mother was born in pre-Partition Lahore. His family is based in New Delhi.
What were some questions that you went in with while pursuing this project? What did you find?
The project actually started as a documentary film project. This is going back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had become friends with a Bangladeshi-American stand-up comedian and actor, Alaudin Ullah, and pretty early on, he approached me wanting to make a documentary about his father, Habib (who is on the cover of the book). Since Habib had died when Alaudin was still in his early teens, Alaudin didn’t know a lot about his father’s earlier life in the United States, but he knew that his father had come here in the 1920s, that he’d married a Puerto Rican woman and moved to Spanish Harlem sometime in the 30s, and then had two kids.
Many years after his first wife passed away, Alaudin’s father returned to Noakhali in what was then East Pakistan and remarried. Alaudin is the second son from that second marriage, so when Alaudin was growing up, his father was quite elderly and in poor health. Alaudin knew that there were other men from Noakhali who had been in the US for a while, but that’s about all he knew.
When he told me his father’s story it was so out of the ordinary, because the history that we know of South Asians in the US focuses on the early migrations of Punjabis to the West Coast, to Vancouver, to the Pacific Northwest in California. In that setting, the rise of the Ghadar Party and the involvement of expatriate nationalists in the Indian independence movement... that was all focused on the West Coast, and predominantly Punjabis.
And the assumption for a long time had been, after the US passed a strict anti-Asian immigration law in 1917, (sometimes referred to as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act), that the doors closed to South Asian immigration and nothing really happened until 1965, when the US passed a new immigration law that reopened the doors.
That 1965 law was written in such a way that it created preferences for people with high economic and educational backgrounds, professionals such as engineers and doctors. So the community that developed in the United States a few decades after 1965 had a profile of predominantly northern Indian professionals with high educational backgrounds. That group became dominant in terms of how we came to think of South Asian Americans...
In other words, a small stream of migration in the early 20th century from Punjab to the West Coast, then the doors shutting, and nothing happening until 1965 when the professional-class immigrants came in – that was the understanding. So, when Alaudin told me the story of his father, who lived most of his adult life in that period between 1917 and 1965 when supposedly there was nothing going on – when immigration had supposedly come to a halt – that was such a striking story to me, and we agreed to do the documentary.
But then in the late 90s and early 2000s, when I tried to find existing immigration histories into which I could place Alaudin’s father, there was nothing. So, I wanted to find out whether his circle of other Bengali Muslim men was a small group that somehow made it from East Bengal to East Harlem at the height of the Asian exclusion era, or was there some larger history that hadn’t been picked up on?
That’s what led me to the decision to get a PhD. I was working as an independent documentary filmmaker, but it was clear there was an important history here that had not been written. So early on in my conversations with Alaudin I decided to go to graduate school to get a PhD (at NYU in the American Studies Programme), and to use my time in graduate school and beyond to find out whether Alaudin’s father was part of a larger history of South Asian migration to the US that had been missed or lost.
How did you meet Alaudin?
We met at a time when we were both involved in the arts in New York. He was doing stand-up comedy. I was doing documentary film work independently, but I was also running a club night in New York City along with DJ Rekha. Rekha had begun Basement Bhangra in early 1997 and then later that year, she and I started another club called Mutiny, which was focused on South Asian electronic music...
Alaudin and I ... were part of the first critical mass of second-generation South Asian Americans in New York City. It was the first moment where there were just enough of us doing arts and activist work that we started to really build momentum with one another.
What surprised you the most while working on this project?
It was really just one surprising discovery after another, that’s what hooked me onto this. It began with Alaudin’s father’s story. The first place I went as I began the research was the New York City Municipal Archives. I started looking at marriage records from the 1920s and 30s, just searching for names like Ullah, Ali, Uddin, and Miah – common surnames among Bengali Muslim men – and I started finding one after another after another who had married African American and Puerto Rican women in Harlem.
Two things happened from there. One is: I found marriage records of two brothers who had the last name ‘Ali’. That was Bahadour and Rostam Ali. Their marriage certificates showed that they weren’t born in India; one was born in Mississippi and one in New Orleans, and their parents were listed as Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman Ali. That pointed me towards Mississippi and New Orleans.
When I started looking at census and shipping records and running the same Bengali Muslim names through searches, a whole other early history started opening up of men who were arriving through Ellis Island but destined for New Orleans and parts of the US South. Then when I looked at census records for New Orleans, again searching for those same names that I had found in the ship records, I saw over the course of four censuses, from 1900 to 1930, more and more groups of Indian Muslim men living together in group households in New Orleans. Over time some of them had married local African American women. Most of their addresses were in the African American neighborhood of Tremé.
On the New York side, I didn’t find passengers with these names, but I found hundreds and eventually thousands of ship workers who were listed as crew members on ships that were going in and out of New York City over the course of that whole period. Most of those men were just coming into port and then going back out on ships carrying goods. But I also found pockets of these men not just in New York, but also in industrial towns where there was factory work, such as Detroit, Michigan and Columbus, Ohio. So it was really a kind of unfolding, like pulling on one thread and watching years of history unravel...
Why the amnesia around this wave of immigration?
A lot of factors kept them hidden. One is that the majority of these early migrants came here as undocumented immigrants. Their country was under colonial rule, the US had passed laws saying, ‘You’re not welcome,’ and they were making the most of that situation. In fact, in the US during the First World War, these men were being encouraged to jump ship by American labour recruiters.
So given they were undocumented, there was an imperative for them to hide or to blend in. One of the things that didn’t happen, which happened later, was that we didn’t see an ‘enclave’ – a pattern of migration to the US that later developed in places like Jackson Heights, in Queens. That wasn’t something a group of undocumented immigrants would want to do – they needed to stay under the radar for their own survival.
Another reason is the nature of post-1965 migration. In the years immediately after 1965, when the newer, predominantly Indian, professional-class immigrants started coming in, I can’t imagine them being unaware of the Indian restaurants that were around New York City at that time, the majority run by Muslim men from what had just become Bangladesh...
There must have been at least some awareness among the Indian immigrant professionals who came in the 60s and 70s to New York City that there was this other, earlier migration of Bengali Muslims who had married into US communities of colour. And why that fact didn’t at least get passed on as oral history within Indian families, I think,... a combination of classism and anti-blackness likely played a part in this particular history not being recorded or even becoming part of the community memory.
How does late 19th and early 20th century migration contrast with our understanding of South Asian immigration to the US today, including our ideas about things like assimilation and racism?
What struck me most is how many continuities there are between past and present, one of those being that if you look at the nature of immigration from the South Asian subcontinent to the US starting in the late 19th century to the present, there is a continuous and unbroken line of working class migration to the United States from what’s now Pakistan, northern India (Punjab, in particular), West Bengal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
So even though it was overshadowed by that of professional classes after 1965, working class immigration has in fact been as much the norm of migration from South Asia to the US as anything.
That discovery went against the grain of the previous idea of South Asian American history in which it was imagined that South Asian migration came to a halt for 40-50 years in the middle of the 20th century. That’s false...
The other dynamic that has remained, even if it has sort of shifted in nature, is that at every point in time I’ve looked at from the late 1800s to the present, there have always been a clearly defined group of Indians or South Asians who are considered acceptable or even desirable as immigrants to the US, alongside, a group of others who the US deemed unacceptable and undesirable. And the terms of desirability have been defined both in US popular culture and US immigration laws.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the acceptable “Indian” – or “Hindoo” to use the language of that era – was really someone who could deliver upon Western fantasies of the East. So you had Indian circus performers being brought in, and as for the Bengali traders who settled in the South, they found a niche in selling what was referred to as ‘Oriental goods’ – there was a huge craze for goods from South Asia, Middle East, and North Africa. There were others such as Swami Vivekananda who could elucidate certain aspects of Indian religion and culture as imagined and desired by the West.
Those who were not desirable were actual workers. So as soon as Punjabi workers started moving from British Columbia in Canada down into Washington State and Oregon around 1904, there was a huge and at times violent backlash of nativist white American labour leaders and on-the-ground white workers against South Asians, and a moral panic around what was referred to as the ‘Turban Tide’, on top of the ‘Yellow Peril’ rhetoric already being deployed against Chinese immigrants.
So, in the early 20th century, you see a dichotomy between a certain kind of Indian that is broadly desirable because they opened the American consumer up to a world of exotic fantasy, and then others who are undesirable because they’re seen as a cultural, racial, and economic threat.
You see that seeming dichotomy continuing to the present, particularly in the post 9/11 environment in which on the one hand, you have an image of the desirable South Asian – the highly educated model minority who wants to assimilate into white suburban America – and the image of the undesirable – the backward, inassimilable terrorist or would-be terrorist. That dichotomy (of model minority versus terrorist) functions in a very similar way to the previous bifurcation of South Asians into either exotic figures or cultural and economic threats.
What can you tell me about the ties between Black people and the South Asian immigrant workers, and what resonance does this have when you look at Black Lives Matter and the role of South Asians in it? Where does a figure like Shyamala Harris appear in all this?
First of all, what also drew me to the earlier histories of South Asian migration to neighbourhoods like Tremé, the Lower East Side and Harlem was that they offer us a view of an alternate way of integrating into the United States. At a time when the US as a nation had closed its doors to South Asian immigrants, individual neighbourhoods, communities, and families of colour opened their doors, created the possibility for undocumented South Asian immigrants to integrate into existing communities of colour and pursue the lives and the work that they wanted, in order to send money back to their villages and families back in the subcontinent.
That was made possible because those neighbourhoods, like Harlem, were actually very diverse and heterogeneous, and included people of African descent from all over the world, as well as other smaller communities of colour. And that’s where South Asians found a home when the US as a nation did not offer them any, did not want them to even enter the country.
It’s important not to idealise those relationships between South Asians and African Americans in the past. There were definitely tensions, difficulties and struggles, but those were a part of a longer-term process of people living side-by-side and getting to know each other. That’s a very different trajectory from the one that post-’65 immigrants have accepted unquestioningly: the pursuit of model minority status and assimilation into whiteness. The earlier history shows us a different set of possibilities.
Also, the kinds of dynamics that were ongoing among South Asians and African Americans, as well as South Asians and Puerto Ricans in New York in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, continue in the present among working class communities that are embedded within other communities of colour. So you see, for example, the Bangladeshi-American rapper Anik Khan, both in interviews and his music, talking about all those interconnections – how he grew up eating Jamaican food alongside Bengali food, how his friends were from multiple different communities tied to different histories of the African diaspora, as well as Latinx and from other South Asian communities: Indo-Caribbeans, Pakistanis, Indians. So the kinds of cross-racial dynamics that were present in Harlem in the 1930s, 40s, 50s haven’t disappeared. They exist to this day, particularly among the second-generation.
The dynamic of desirability/undesirability has always also functioned like a carrot and a stick. Immigrants are rewarded to the extent that they live up to the ideal of the model minority and its implicit assimilation to whiteness. Immigrants who do not or cannot achieve that ideal, or who do not choose to follow that trajectory of assimilation are always under threat of racial violence, of state surveillance, such as surveillance of mosques and community spaces.
So everything is set up to place South Asian immigrants upon a path towards assimilating into US society as it exists – with all its existing structural inequalities – as opposed to aligning with communities who are marginalised here and are fighting for a more just society. What has always struck me about that is our grandparents’ generation fought the British to create a more just society, have self-determination, and then those of us who came here either as children, grandchildren, or great- grandchildren of the generation that fought against the British in India, why is it that we are just accepting the injustices and inequalities here? Why are we siding with those who have power in an unequal and unjust society, rather than seeing connections between our histories and present and those of African Americans and indigenous peoples in the US?
What you see in Shyamala Harris’s trajectory, for one, is an alignment with those who were struggling for justice and freedom in the Black freedom movement. That was a different trajectory. My mother came the very same year as Kamala Harris’ mother, on a scholarship also, to get a PhD on the East Coast.
That particular generation of immigrants who came as students is distinct from other histories I’ve written about, such as the peddlers who came to the South and the ship jumpers who settled in the Northeast. Because throughout the Asian exclusion era to the present, there has always been an exception allowing students to come from India to the US to study. That’s the way that Kamala Harris’s mother came here, that’s the way that my own mother came here in 1958.
And what’s unique about that specific generation that Kamala Harris’s mother was part of, was that the late 60s and early 1970s were a moment in which not only was the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement unfolding here in the United States, but those movements very much saw themselves in connection with anti-colonial movements across the world. The graduate students who were here from what was then called the Third World, including India, were connecting to Black and indigenous struggles here also through the lens of a Third World anti-colonial internationalism.
That was the arena that my mother was part of as a graduate student and then as a young professor who was teaching graduate students from all over the decolonising world, and my sense is that Shyamala Harris was also in circles where the Black freedom struggle and the struggle of indigenous peoples in the US were seen as part of a global anti-colonial struggle.
What are your thoughts on anti-blackness and racism back in India? How do Bengalis and Indians continue to be racist towards those of African origin in India, given this context of global anti-colonial solidarity?
The numerous incidents over the last decade of racial violence against African students and immigrants in India are really shocking. In the US, one of the one of the most important interventions in the current conversation among South Asian Americans is about how to become better allies or how to work in solidarity with African Americans. There’s a very important imperative that’s been put on the table by Dalit activists in the US arguing rightly that the process of becoming an ally or working in solidarity with African Americans against US anti-blackness has to start by unpacking and confronting casteism and colourism within our own diaspora communities.
How does your research contextualise this present moment we’re in?
It’s important for us to understand the past so that we can best work in the present to build a more just, humane and sustainable future. Even though my work on this project is looking backward in time, it is, in this sense, very much about the present and the future.
Rather than spending our energy as South Asian Americans trying to achieve national inclusion, we have to understand exactly what we are trying to include ourselves in. What are the historical and ongoing injustices of the nation within which we want to be included? And when our horizon goes beyond national inclusion, beyond wanting to assimilate into the United States as it currently exists, when our horizon, rather, is the horizon of those who are struggling for justice here, for a reckoning with United States past and present inequalities, and envisioning a different kind of society here ... that is the horizon toward which I would hope more South Asian Americans raise their vision.
I believe that’s the horizon that my grandmother would have wanted me to be reaching toward here in the US. My grandmother, who, along with other women of her generation, gathered and burned British goods in the streets, sang songs to shame the Indian police officers who were helping to keep Indian political prisoners in British jails... I would like to think that she’d want me not simply to seek inclusion in the US as it is, but to join with those who are fighting for a more just United States and more just world.