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.
[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.
A revelatory book… Vivek Bald’s new book on Bengali migration tells a history that has been largely unknown.
Bald’s meticulously researched Bengali Harlem is about Indian sailors who jumped ship on the eastern seaboard during the early twentieth century. These men became blue-collar workers and married African American and Latina women, and their lives suggest a heterogeneity and hopefulness in the immigrant experience that is sometimes ignored.
Captur[es] a unique narrative of inter-marriage and inter-ethnic community making in America.
Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America is a landmark work at exhuming an unknown past of South Asian emigration… It deals in fascinating detail with the little-known narrative of Muslim men travelling from undivided Bengal from the 1880s onwards to seek a living in the U.S.
Bald opens readers’ eyes to a rarely depicted part of the U.S. melting pot.
A revelatory account of how the first Bengali migrants quietly merged into America’s iconic neighbourhoods.
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-siècle 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.
Vivek Bald’s extraordinary account persuasively places these first Bengali migrants at the heart of our multiracial American experience. A virtuoso act of recovery.
Vivek Bald’s work on this untold story is meticulously researched, movingly told, and absolutely timely.
Vivek Bald’s Bengali Harlem is a monumental achievement. It brings to life a slice of the U.S. population unknown to the history books: South Asian migrants who came into the United States between the 1890s and the 1940s, making their lives in between African American and migrant spaces. Elegantly assembled, the stories of these migrants and their families are fascinating and heart-rending.
Grounded in extraordinary research, Bengali Harlem reveals how South Asians became an integral part of black and Puerto Rican communities in the early years of the twentieth century. Historians of black life, culture, and commerce will never again be able to ignore the South Asian presence in African American communities and families.
- 2014, Winner of the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Award
- 320 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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