Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

Article excerpt

Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. By Vivek Bald. (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. [xii], 294. $35.00, ISBN 978-0-674-06666-3.)

Writing about peddlers and ex-seamen from India during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Vivek Bald, in his exciting first monograph, adds nuance to southern social landscapes, challenges grand narratives of America's immigrant past, and expands South Asian immigration history. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America describes an overlooked history of mostly Muslim immigrants who "cycled through" commercial and maritime networks spanning industrialized East Coast cities to Texas, though Bald focuses on the larger communities of New Orleans and Harlem (p. 7). These networks were further linked to port cities around the world.

Starting in the 1880s, immigrant street peddlers worked in high-tourist areas selling tablecloths, handkerchiefs, and other textiles embroidered by women in Hooghly, Bengal. Patronizingly described in the American press as both "handsome" and "ridiculous," Bengali peddlers settled on the outskirts of Storyville, New Orleans's red-light district (p. 23, 27). Alef Ally, for example, ran a boardinghouse in Storyville and lived with a Creole woman named Emily Lecompte, with whom he had two daughters. From New Orleans, peddlers ventured as far as Fort Worth and Atlanta to sell their goods but also resided in Memphis, Galveston, and Charleston.

A second group--Indian maritime workers in the engine rooms of British merchant steamships--began deserting their ships in port, opting to find less grueling work in the United States. World War I especially brought large numbers of ex-seamen to provide labor in American munitions, shipbuilding, and steel factories. Later, they expanded their occupational pursuits to include Detroit's automobile plants as well as the service and hospitality industries throughout the Northeast. In New Orleans, Indian men frequently married into communities of color (especially African American and Puerto Rican), sometimes establishing restaurants and other small businesses in these neighborhoods. …

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