Bengali Harlem & the Lost Histories of South Asian America

by Vivek Bald
(Harvard University Press, 2012)
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Winner of the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award
Winner of the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for History
Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year
Saveur “Essential Food Books That Define New York City” Selection

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 Tremé 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.

Articles & Reviews

A sampling of articles about the book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, from The Margins’ Naeem Mohaemen, Hyphen Magazine‘s S. Nadia Hussain, the New York Daily News‘ Erica Pearson, and the New York Times‘ Sam Roberts.

Publisher’s Weekly
Starred Review

Bald vividly recreates the history of South Asian migration to the U.S. from the 1880s through the 1960s, [d]rawing on ships’ logs, census records, marriage documents, local news items, the memoir of an Indian Communist refugee, and interviews with descendants… [He] persuasively shows how these immigrants provide us with a “different picture of assimilation.” . Continue reading…

New York Times – India Ink Blog
A Conversation With: Author and Filmmaker Vivek Bald
by Jennifer Chowdhury

The filmmaker and author Vivek Bald… documents the histories of seldom-acknowledged groups of early South Asian migrants to the United States, like Muslim silk and cotton traders from West Bengal in the 1880s and Indian sailors who deserted British steamships in the early 20th century… In an e-mail interview with India Ink, Mr. Bald discussed his research and his plans for a documentary related to his book. Continue reading…

The Margins – Asian American Writers’ Workshop
The Skin I’m In
by Naeem Mohaiemen

I have recently been thinking about the blurred race politics of early Twentieth Century activist Taraknath Das. Das was an anti-colonial Bengali organizer in British India, eventually fleeing arrest by British authorities by immigrating to America. Continue reading…

New York Daily News
MIT Scholar uncovers forgotten history of South Asian immigrants’ New York City arrival
by Erica Pearson

Virtually all Asian immigration to the U.S. was banned when Aladdin Ullah’s father — who left East Bengal to work on a British steamer — jumped ship in the 1920s and settled in New York.

Like hundreds of other Muslim sailors at the time, he found a home in Harlem — marrying a Puerto Rican woman and opening one of the city’s first Indian restaurants. He stayed there until his death in 1983. Continue reading…

Taj Mahal Foxtrot Blog
The Indian Who Discovered Ella
by Naresh Fernandes

“Boss, this girl has something,” drummer Chick Webb’s male singer told him. “You must hear her.” Webb couldn’t see the need for that. Though he cut one of the strangest sights in jazz – a drummer bent over by spinal tuberculosis, with partially paralysed legs – Webb was one of the earliest legends of swing. Continue reading…

New York Times
Where Ethnicity Was Fluid
by Sam Roberts

IN “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America” (Harvard University Press, $35), Vivek Bald, who teaches writing and digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has produced an engaging account of a largely untold wave of immigration: Muslims from British India who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Continue reading…

Wall Street Journal – India Real Time
The Bengali Villagers Who Migrated to America
by Atish Patel

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a wave of mostly illiterate Muslim men from Bengali villages arrived in the U.S., settling in neighborhoods like Tremé in New Orleans and Harlem in New York. Many formed multi-ethnic families after marrying African American, Puerto Rican and Creole women. Their story has remained largely untold until now.. Continue reading…

Live Mint
Bengali men, American jazz
by Shamik Bag

The middle-aged men among the villagers in Babnan, a rural hamlet in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, still tittle-tattle about the time when there was a “mem” in their midst. She spoke Spanish, wore gowns and would scream “cover, cover” whenever flies hovered over the food. In a Muslim-majority village, the memsahib, locally called Mrs Politon, had appeared unannounced one day in 1931—wife of the US-returned Niyamul Haque Mondal, a Muslim who had followed his father to the distant land as a chikan peddler. Continue reading…

Hyphen Magazine Blog
Lost and Found: The Legacy of the Bangladeshi Sons of New York
by S. Nadia Hussain

Ibrahim Chowdry is the reason I am an American. He was my grandmother’s first cousin, and he sponsored my family to come to the United States from Bangladesh. He was also the first documented Bangladeshi man to settle in New York City, arriving in the 1920s. This was more than half a century before South Asians immigrated to the US en masse in the 1980s. Continue reading…