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Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Vivek Bald

ISBN 9780674503854

Publication date: 03/23/2015

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Winner of the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award

Winner of the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for History

A Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year

A 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.

Praise

  • [Bald] 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.

    —Sam Roberts, New York Times

Awards

  • 2014, Winner of the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award

Author

  • Vivek Bald is Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the director of the documentary films Taxi-vala/Auto-biography and Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, and is working on a film based on Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian Americans. More information can be found at http://bengaliharlem.com.

Book Details

  • 320 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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