Book Exposes Lost History of ‘Bengali Harlem’

(Photo via News India Times)

A new book by Vivek Bald unveils the South Asian immigrant experience in America and its connection with the African-American and Puerto Rican communities, The News India Times reports.

“Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America,” published in November by Harvard University Press, unravels the stories of South Asian immigrants who settled in New York, Detroit and Philadelphia.

South Asian immigrants were not legally allowed to enter the United States between 1917 and 1965. But many came anyway – working on British steamships, then deserting in American ports and carving out new lives for themselves.

Take the case of Habib Ullah, a Muslim from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), who left a ship in Boston in the 1920s, found his way to New York, settled in East Harlem and, by the 1940s, was running a popular restaurant in Manhattan’s Theater District.

Like Ullah, other South Asian Muslims — from present-day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan — settled in the United States at the same time, often marrying into African-American and Puerto Rican families. Today, many African-Americans and Americans of Puerto Rican descent also have South Asian ancestors.

According to the article, Bald, an assistant professor of writing and digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wanted to point out “the South Asian Muslim presence in the U.S., at a time when Muslims are being portrayed as newcomers, enemies and outsiders.”

“The predominant understanding of South Asian immigration to the U.S. was one in which the doors to immigration closed in the late 1910s and early ’20s, and then opened up again in 1965,” Bald said.  Because of the way the 1965 Immigration Act was crafted, he noted, the South Asians who came to the U.S. in its wake were predominantly highly skilled professionals. But Ullah’s story suggested to Bald that there was a longer history of striving, working-class South Asian immigrants in America.

Bald found two waves of early South Asian immigration to America that had been overlooked. The first, which began in the late 1800s, consisted of peddlers who sold embroidered goods and settled in New Orleans. Then, in the 1920s and 1930s, it became more common for South Asians to live in Eastern and Northern cities.

In the process, many Bengalis, who lived in close proximity to African-Americans and Puerto Ricans, found themselves marrying into those communities. For instance, Habib Ullah’s wife, Victoria Echevarria Ullah, was a Puerto Rican immigrant who helped him run the family restaurant.

“This began as a story about the South Asian Diaspora, but it quickly became clear that this was also a story about African-American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, and the families and friendships and communities that South Asian Muslims formed there when they were not openly welcomed into the nation,” Bald said.

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  1. Pingback: Bangladeshi Writers Honor the SilencedVoices of NY

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