cover image Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Vivek Bald. Harvard Univ., $35 (306p) ISBN 978-0-674-06666-3

MIT professor and documentarian Bald vividly recreates the history of South Asian migration to the U.S. from the 1880s through the 1960s. Drawing on ships' logs, census records, marriage documents, local news items, the memoir of an Indian Communist refugee, and interviews with descendants, Bald reconstructs the stories of the Muslim silk peddlers who arrived in 1880s during the fin-de-si%C3%A8cle fascination for Orientalism; the seamen from colonial India who jumped ship at ports along the Eastern seaboard; and the Creole, African-American, and Puerto Rican women they married. Bald persuasively shows how these immigrants provide us with a "different picture of assimilation." Global labor migrants, they did not necessarily come seeking a better way of life, nor did they follow a path of upward mobility. In the cases of the silk peddlers who maintained ties to the subcontinent to obtain their goods, they forged extensive global networks yet also assimilated into black neighborhoods, building multiethnic families and communities at a time of exclusionary immigration laws against Asians. By the 1940s, those who stayed had followed the jobs, becoming auto or steel workers in the Midwest, storekeepers in the South, and hotdog vendors or restaurant workers in Manhattan, and, thanks to their wives, had quietly blended into neighborhoods such as Harlem, West Baltimore, Treme in New Orleans and Black Bottom in Detroit. (Jan.)