Black and Bengali

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Asian Diaspora, History, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2013-05-03 22:17Z by Steven

Black and Bengali

In These Times

Fatima Shaik

A new book traces the hidden story of a mixed-race community.

The federal census taker comes every 10 years and, for most people in the United States, this has little consequence. But not where I lived, in New Orleans, just outside the historic district of Tremé. There, people talked to each other about whether to lie to the census taker and which lie to tell, and that conversation produced stories about who had disappeared from us and who had stayed, and what was more important: loyalty or money.

That was the mentality in Creole New Orleans from as far back as I can remember—that is, the 1950s—until recently. The lying, the disappearing, the money and lack of it had everything to do with race.

We were part of a mixed-race community of immigrants and Louisiana natives, and there was no place for us in the data tables of the census or in the mind of a black-and-white America. And yet we existed, for generations. Now, in a thoroughly researched new book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Vivek Bald traces one vein of our lineage, from a most distant country…

…Racially, the Bengalis confounded the official categories. On documents, they appeared as “white, colored, Negro, Indian and East Indian,” Bald notes. And after their intermarriages to local women of color, their descendants still operated in all of these categories. When I was growing up, people talked on front porches and at kitchen tables about light-skinned family members who “passed” for white and were never seen again. Other people “passed” by simply going across town each day to work in banks, stores and other places where jobs were unavailable to Negroes. Bald notes that some darker-skinned Indians escaped Negro segregation by wearing turbans and calling themselves “Turks” and “Hindoos” while selling their wares, before coming home to their black families.

But the Bengalis in the mixed-race community kept few written accounts of their lives. Bald’s evidence is their footprint in business—restaurants and shops—and their occupations listed in census tables, for example, as countermen, chauffeurs, porters, firemen and subway laborers.

My grandfather became a shopkeeper and lived the rest of his life in the black community of New Orleans. People from around the world melded easily into our location. In the 19th century, Tremé was home to one of the most powerful and liberal communities of free people of color in America, rooted not only in Africa but also Europe, the Caribbean and—I recently learned from a classmate—as far away as New Zealand…

Read the entire article here.

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On Being Brown in America

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2013-04-28 23:15Z by Steven

On Being Brown in America

The New York Times

Amitava Kumar, Writer and Professor of English
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York

The recent bombings in Boston threw up many questions. One of the most pressing, in my somewhat narrow view, is the meaning of being brown in America.

On April 17, two days after the bombs went off during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring almost 200 others, CNN’s John King went on air to say that the suspect was a “dark-skinned male.” In the CNN video, which shows that the time of the broadcast was 1.15 p.m. on Wednesday, we see King pointing to a photograph from the front-page of The New York Times. A positive identification had been made based on a surveillance video from a Lord & Taylor store just outside the frame of the picture in the Times, King said. A little later that afternoon, King would go on to assure viewers that a subsequent arrest had been made.

No one had been arrested that day, of course, and, alas, there was no dark-skinned male. What is remarkable is that even while first reporting his piece of “exclusive” news, CNN’s King felt it necessary to qualify what he was saying. The qualifications he offered were not about the haste with which he was sharing a piece of misinformation, or the bewildering lack of specificity in his description, or even the absence of adequate verification. Instead, his remarks appeared to suggest to his viewers that he couldn’t be more open with them because of politically correct sentiments that complicated open disclosures of “game changers” that the police had uncovered:

“I was told they have a breakthrough in the identification of the suspect, and I’m told — and I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things — I was told by one of these sources who’s a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male… The official used some other words. I’m not going to repeat them until we get more information because of the sensitivities. There are some people who will take offense even in saying that.”

Some people! Who are they?…

…You’ve heard the words of the old blues song: “They say if you’s white, should be all right, / If you’s brown, stick around, / But if you’s black, mmm mmm, brother, get back, get back, get back.” That old racial imaginary is changing. Brown is staining the edges of the racial divide. Richard Rodriguez has written, “Brown bleeds through the straight line, unstaunchable — the line separating black from white, for example.” If we are going to be optimistic, we can even say that brown is the color of the future.

A new book by a Boston-based academic and filmmaker, Vivek Bald, describes the formation of what he calls Bengali Harlem in the early decades of the last century. Starting with the migration of Bengali peddlers to the United States in 1880s, and a later group of seamen, mostly Muslims, in the 1930s and 1940s, those who came to this country didn’t establish separate ethnic enclaves like later immigrants. Instead, they formed “networks that were embedded in working-class Creole, African-American, and Puerto Rican neighborhoods and entwined with the lives of their residents.” This radical mixing and assimilation, Bald argues, is an unnoticed aspect of the history of U.S. immigration.

The invisible assimilation of working-class immigrants in that early phase has given way to an entirely different order of mixing in contemporary America. The attacks of Sept. 11 might have drawn a line in the sand, but the reality of sand is that it keeps shifting…

Read the entire article here.

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MIT Scholar Vivek Bald uncovers forgotten history of South Asian immigrants’ New York City arrival

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Asian Diaspora, History, Media Archive, United States on 2013-04-07 02:36Z by Steven

MIT Scholar Vivek Bald uncovers forgotten history of South Asian immigrants’ New York City arrival

New York Daily News

Erica Pearson

New book chronicles little-known story of Muslims from what’s now Pakistan and Bangladesh, who built a multiracial community in Harlem decades before they were legally allowed to immigrate to the U.S.

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.

“I see, now that I’m older, he kind of romanticized what Harlem was to him,” said Ullah, 44, a comedian and playwright who grew up in the George Washington Carver Houses.

“I think my father looked at Harlem as where, ‘Here is where people greet you, These people embraced me for what I am.’ ”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and filmmaker Vivek Bald, is the author of “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America,” published this month by Harvard University Press.

Bald believes Ullah’s family is the last in East Harlem with a direct connection to a little-documented community that thrived decades before the first large waves of South Asian immigration to the U.S…

… In many ways, the histories of these early immigrants became lost because they were forced into the shadows, Bald said. Race-based immigration laws — starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and extending until the quota system was overhauled in 1965 — made their presence illegal.

“If you were an Asian person, with very few exceptions you were legally barred from entering the U.S. like other immigrants,” said Bald. “You were not deemed fit to become a citizen, and in many states you could not legally own property.”

But in Harlem, Bengali immigrants married into African-American and Puerto Rican families and found jobs as doormen or dishwashers. In the 1940s, Bengali vendors sold hotdogs from carts along Madison, Lexington and Third Aves…

Read the entire article here.

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Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America [Event]

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Family/Parenting, History, Live Events, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2013-04-06 17:24Z by Steven

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America [Event]

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Langston Hughes Auditorium
515 Malcolm X Boulevard
New York, New York 10037-1801
2013-04-06, 17:30-20:30 EDT (Local Time)

A book event with theater, film, and community forum presented by afro-latin@ forum, Asian American Writer’s Workshop and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Join us for a celebration of the publication of Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Harvard University Press) by scholar and documentary filmmaker Vivek Bald. This special event will explore the little-known stories of Muslim men from the Indian subcontinent who settled in Harlem in the 1920s-50s, married Puerto Rican, African American, and West Indian women, and became a small but significant part of the neighborhood, selling hotdogs from pushcarts, opening the neighborhood’s first Indian restaurants, and interacting with Harlem’s other Muslim communities. 

Bald will read from his book, which traces out these and other early histories of Indian Muslim men who settled in places like Tremé in New Orleans and Black Bottom in Detroit. East Harlem actor/playwright Alaudin Ullah will perform an excerpt from his one-man show “Dishwasher Dreams,” which focuses on the story of his father Habib, who was one of the first Bengali men to settle in Harlem. The event will also include an excerpt from “In Search of Bengali Harlem,” the documentary film on which Bald and Ullah are collaborating, followed by a panel discussion and community forum with children and descendants of some of the Bengali men who settled in Harlem in the mid-twentieth century. Plus a special guest DJ set by Himanshu Suri, aka Heems, formerly of the rap group Das Racist.

For more information, click here.

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Bengali Harlem: Author documents a lost history of immigration in America

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, History, Media Archive, United States on 2013-03-02 04:14Z by Steven

Bengali Harlem: Author documents a lost history of immigration in America

In America: You define America. What defines you?
Cable News Network (CNN)

Editor’s note: CNN’s Moni Basu, a Bengali immigrant, was born in Kolkata, India.

Moni Basu

(CNN) – In the next few weeks, Fatima Shaik, an African-American, Christian woman, will travel “home” from New York to Kolkata, India.

It will be a journey steeped in a history that has remained unknown until the publication last month of a revelatory book by Vivek Bald. And it will be a journey of contemplation as Shaik, 60, meets for the first time ancestors with whom she has little in common.

“I want to go back because I want to find some sort of closure for my family, said Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience.

That Americans like Shaik, who identify as black, are linked by blood to a people on the Indian subcontinent seems, at first, improbable.

South Asian immigration boomed in this country after the passage of landmark immigration legislation in 1965. But long before that, there were smaller waves of new Americans who hailed from India under the British Empire.

The first group, to which Shaik’s grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, belonged, consisted of peddlers who came to these shores in the 1890s, according to Bald. They sold embroidered silks and cottons and other “exotic” wares from the East on the boardwalks of Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey. They eventually made their way south to cities like New Orleans and Atlanta and even farther to Central America.

The second wave came in the 1920s and ‘30s. They were seamen, some merchant marines.

Most were Muslim men from what was then the Indian province of Bengal and in many ways, they were the opposite of the stereotype of today’s well-heeled, highly educated South Asians.

South Asian immigration was illegal then – the 1917 Immigration Act barred all idiots, imbeciles, criminals and people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.”

The Bengalis got off ships with little to their name.

They were mostly illiterate and worked as cooks, dishwashers, merchants, subway laborers. In New York, they gradually formed a small community of sorts in Spanish Harlem. They occupied apartments and tenement housing on streets in the 100s. They worked hard.

And they did all they could do to become American in a nation of segregation and prejudice.

A huge part of that meant marrying Latino and African-American women—there were no Bengali women around—and letting go of the world they left behind.

Unlike other immigrants of the time, they didn’t settle in their own enclaves. Rather, they began life anew in established neighborhoods of color: Harlem, West Baltimore and in New Orleans, Tremé.

By doing so, they also became a part of black and Latino heritage in America…

Read the entire article and view the photograph of “Bengalis and their Puerto Rican and African-American wives at a 1952 banquet at New York’s Pakistan League of America” here.

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Bengali Harlem

Posted in Anthropology, Asian Diaspora, Audio, History, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-13 16:33Z by Steven

Bengali Harlem

The Brian Lehrer Show
WNYC 93.9 FM/ 820 AM

Brian Lehrer, Host

Vivek Bald, Assistant Professor of Writing and Digital Media
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Vivek Bald, documentary director and assistant professor of writing and digital media at MIT and the author of Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, reveals the little known history of early South Asian immigrants, from Tremé to Harlem.

→explore the Bengali Harlem website, including an excerpt from Aladdin Ullah’s one-man show here.

Download the interview here. Stream m3u here. (00:14:12).

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Where Ethnicity Was Fluid

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2012-12-31 00:05Z by Steven

Where Ethnicity Was Fluid

The New York Times

Sam Roberts, Urban Affairs Correspondent

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…

…“Collectively they used Americans’ confusion over their ‘race’ to their advantage, developing a fluid and contextual approach to their identity,” he writes. “They were ‘white’ when they attempted to claim citizenship, ‘Hindoo’ when selling exotic goods, ‘black’ or ‘Porto Rican’ when disappearing into U.S. cities or actively attempting to evade the immigration authorities.”…

Read the entire review here.

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Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Books, History, Media Archive, Monographs, Social Science, United States on 2012-09-25 21:08Z by Steven

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Harvard University Press
320 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
15 halftones, 2 maps, 4 tables
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674066663

Vivek Bald, Assistant Professor of Writing and Digital Media
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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.

For more information, visit the Bengali Harlem website here.

Table of Contents

  • Author’s Note
  • Introduction: Lost in Migration
  • 1. Out of the East and into the South
  • 2. Between Hindoo and Negro
  • 3. From Ships’ Holds to Factory Floors
  • 4. The Travels and Transformations of Amir Haider Khan
  • 5. Bengali Harlem
  • 6. The Life and Times of a Multiracial Community
  • Conclusion: Lost Futures
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
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