The ghosts of Harlem past
16 January 2017
The history of Southasians in America is richer than the discourse suggests.
Vivek Bald’s intricately researched and exquisitely rendered Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America exposes at least three truths regarding the story of Indians in America today. First, relatively affluent, post-1965 ‘techies’ have hijacked the narrative of Indian immigration to America from their scrappier, working-class and itinerant forebears; second, the voices of Sikhs and Muslims who were critical in the fight for individual and collective rights in the US in the first half of the 20th century have been sidelined; and third, current ‘model minority’ narratives pander to the pretences of upper-caste Indians, as well as mainstream American assumptions regarding equal opportunity. In exposing these truths, Bengali Harlem tells a superb tale of 19th-century globalisation and the role that Harlem, New Orleans, London and Chittagong played in this process, reminding us that globalisation is older and deeper than we have come to think.
In exposing these truths, Bald’s work provides a necessary corrective to persistent, one-dimensional tropes regarding the Indian American experience. Indians are widely represented in the American media as highly literate, hardworking, socially-awkward, ‘authentic’, Hindu and conservative. This representation is often true to how the community sees itself. In a piece of pop sociology attempting to explain the relative success of different ethnic groups in America today, including Indian Americans, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld cited the importance of three traits: a cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. Among the diasporic Indian middle classes, the argument has been well-received. Of course, such analysis invariably comes with an insidious comparison to African Americans and Hispanics, who presumably do not have these winning traits. (Such arguments ignore the fact that if one controls for parental accomplishment and education levels, people of Mexican origin residing in the US are more successful than people of Chinese or Indian origin.) Narratives concerning what ‘makes’ a model minority generally avoid the question of class and race. Thankfully, these questions are central to Bald’s account.
The early history of working-class Punjabi migrants to the US West Coast has been well chronicled by Karen Isaksen Leonard in Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans (1994). These early migrants were mostly Sikh and Muslim workers – often former British soldiers – who laboured in lumber mills around Vancouver, Canada and further south in Washington and Oregon in the first decades of the 20th century. They made their way to California to pursue opportunities in the region’s lumber, agriculture and railroad industries. They often married Mexican or Mexican American women because of racialised assumptions and the restrictions of miscegenation laws. Their children were raised on corn tortillas and mustard greens, and had names such as Harminder Hernandez Singh, Maria Jesusita Singh and Jose Akbar Khan. The San Francisco Chronicle of 6 April 1899 described the earliest arrivals:
The four Sikhs who arrived on the Nippon Maru the other day were permitted yesterday to land by the immigration officials. The quartet formed the most picturesque group that has been seen on the Pacific Mall dock for many a day. One of them, Bakkshlled [sic] Singh, speaks English with fluency, the others just a little. They are all fine-looking men, Bakkshlled Singh in particular being a marvel of physical beauty. He stands 6 feet 2 inches and is built in proportion. His companions – Bood [sic] Singh, Variam [sic] Singh and Sohava Singh – are not quite so big. All of them have been soldiers and policemen in China… the tall one with the unpronounceable name was a police sergeant in Hong Kong prior to coming to this country.
As an ethnic group of significant novelty in the New World, Southasian immigrants came to be known as ‘Hindoos’. This collective designation distinguished them from Native Americans who were classified as ‘Indians’. In 1917, the newly-passed Immigration Act barred Indians, among other ‘Asiatics’, from coming to America, while the 1923 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind denied citizenship to Indians because they were not considered ‘White’. Thind had attempted to prove otherwise based on complex theories of Indo-European migration.
In distinction to Leonard’s seminal text, which focuses primarily on the experience of West Coast migrants, Bengali Harlem tells us the hitherto hidden story of about a thousand or so Southasian migrants in the east, south and midwest of the US. Many of these migrants came from a stock of Indian maritime workers who hailed from the dispersed villages of East Bengal and were recruited into the engine rooms and kitchens of British steamships. They often jumped ship around the time of the First World War and found employment in labour-hungry factories in the US producing steel, ships and munitions. In New York City, these itinerant seamen entered the service economy as line cooks, dishwashers, doormen and elevator operators. Their story is not very well known.
Perhaps the most startling and fascinating aspect of Bald’s narrative is that he manages to grasp the thin archival trace of scores of Bengali Muslim men who circulated between Hooghly, New Orleans and New York from the 1890s to the 1920s, selling ‘chikan’ and other textiles to white consumers fascinated by all things ‘oriental’. As Bald notes, while these small-time peddlers satisfied the consumer habits of America’s moneyed class, “their pathway into and across the United States was a pathway through working-class black neighborhoods”. Racist laws would not allow them residence anywhere other than coloured, working-class neighbourhoods. They established their outposts in New Orleans’ Tremé and New York’s Harlem neighborhoods, with some of them marrying and starting families with African American women who provided access, stability and longevity to these global networks. This narrative of Muslim peddlers and seamen from colonial India defies later generations’ assumptions and expectations of “who South Asian migrants are, where they come from, [and] what trajectories they follow”. As Bald documents, these early Southasians found a home among the racialised underclass of American cities that included African Americans, Chinese, Filipinos, Roma, Arabs and Mexicans, among others. The processes by which these groups formed bonds generated rich possibilities for a critical cosmopolitanism from below.
The depth of Bald’s research is evident from the outset. To uncover the narrative of the 30 or so peddlers at the interstices of European empires in Panama, Havana, Belize, and Hooghly, Bald accesses a range of sources, from newspapers such as the Atlanta Constitution and Daily Herald of Biloxi, Mississippi, to ship manifests, census forms and the draft registration records of Bengali chikondars. In doing so, the author lands us in the vast segregated spaces of the American republic in New Orleans and New York – two of the greatest port cities of the 19th-century Atlantic trade of slaves, sugar and rum. Beyond relationships premised on the wider economic structure, the author makes compelling note of the social lives of Indian Americans. Bald digs deeper into the social world of the 25 recorded mixed marriages in Tremé, and effectively documents relationships that often had “a level of intimacy beyond mere convenience”.
The prospect of settling down was attractive for many seamen, termed ‘lascars’ by the British. Bald notes the attempts of lascars to enter the US, citing a story in the Independent Hindusthan in October 1920 that reported that 39 Indian workers of Bethlehem Steel Company were arrested without warrants and transported to Ellis Island to be returned to the British Captain of the Lucerus. For lascars, the temptation to jump ship and try their hand at industrial work in cities such as Lackawanna, Chester, Buffalo, Detroit and Youngstown was difficult to turn down. These men were stokers, firemen, coal trimmers and stewards in steamships, and often suffered brutal working conditions. Fire stokers and coal trimmers were literally roasted on the job, and their collective plight was ignored by an alliance of British ship owners, the colonial state and increasingly powerful white unions. By the 1920s, a network of boarding houses, restaurants and laundries would provide a diasporic infrastructure that gave support to these migrants. In most cases, deserters could only depend on inter-ethnic resources to outwit the captains, immigration officials and the police.
The author’s attempt to depict this subaltern cosmopolitanism is evident in his presentation of the case of Dada Amir Haider Khan and his friend, who deserted their ship in January 1918 at the urging of a Jewish ‘Mr S Doctor’ in New York City. Mr Doctor emerges as a colorful character driven in equal parts by subaltern racial solidarity and unalloyed mischief. As a result of Mr Doctor’s influence, Khan and his friend found themselves wandering the streets of Manhattan on a wintry night wrapped in whatever they could muster – a hat, two brightly colored wraps, cotton shirts and two pairs of pants. An African American housekeeper in the Tenderloin district along 7th Avenue agreed to hide them. The “Negro landlady” arranged for a young “Negro girl” to shop for bread, butter and eggs that she cooked to feed the hidden sailors. In a few days they returned to Mr Doctor for advice, and he directed them to the Seaman’s Institute, a cheap sailor’s boarding house, where Khan and his friend met a young British sailor who had also jumped ship. The British sailor advised them on their petition to work, which hinged on a loophole in the 1917 Immigration Law. Khan soon got a job as an American sailor and in a year an Arab sailor put him in touch with a community of Southasian lascars. In his interviews with Bald, Khan insisted that the African American boardinghouse keeper was motivated by something more than a financial relationship – what Khan describes as “an empathy or racial affinity that others he encountered did not have”. This is one of the many moving illustrations of subaltern cosmopolitanism, or what used to be called working-class internationalism, that Bald provides.
On occasion, this solidarity was expressed in the burgeoning minority-interest print media. The leading black national daily, the Afro-American, reporting on a mutiny in 1925, for the most part steered clear of the vulgar exoticism typical of white-owned newspapers. Refreshingly, the main point of the article was not the novel appearance or mores of the subjects described, but the mistreatment of them as workers. As Bald describes:
In its important respects, the Afro-American’s article could not have been more different from those of the era’s white-owned papers. The six seamen were presented here as human beings and, specifically, as workers of color, whose stories were important and whose actions were logical, reasonable, and even commendable. Their dietary observances were not the focus of ridicule or voyeurism but were rather aspects of their faith that their captain was wrong to deny them… The affinity that the Afro-American showed for these Indian “mutineers” was not isolated; this was a historical moment in which African American and Indian nationalist leaders were coming to recognize and articulate the connections between their struggles.
The book excavates many such stories, richly illustrated in pictures, ship manifests and hand-written letters in Bengali, drawing the reader deeper into the cross-currents of race, labour, community and solidarity. The chapter-long biographical interlude of the life of sailor, labour organiser and radical biographer Amir Haider Khan achieves this in riveting fashion. Collective biographies of ‘Bengali Harlem’ that follow in subsequent chapters are similarly rich and nuanced.
While introducing the reader to a variety of intriguing characters, Bald painstakingly uncovers the lives of Harlem’s Bengalis to the extent that he produces a map locating 43 residences of Bengalis in East Harlem. These Bengalis, as Bald contends, assumed Puerto Rican identities to avoid the long arm of immigration officials. Restaurants and laundries were the most common ventures operated by Indian sailors, which became centres of material and symbolic succor for a disparate and disparaged network of survivors. A stretch of Lexington Avenue between 102nd and 116th Streets in East Harlem was sometimes described by Bald’s respondents as a sort of ‘Indian corridor’.
Bald succeeds in excavating details only because he breaks out of the bonds of a traditional historian, going beyond text-based information. He interviews the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the original immigrants. Poor people, especially those from Southasia, where literacy rates are among the lowest in the world, rarely leave archives for historians to work with. Bald deftly circumvents the persistent problem of durability of records by complementing fragmentary texts – official and unofficial – with oral interviews. Thus it is that he recovers the lost world of Southasian Muslim men such as Habib who settled in Spanish Harlem. This Southasian America of the pre-1965 era was embedded within “Puerto Rican America, Afro-Caribbean America, and African America”. The passage of the Hart-Celler Act that opened immigration from the barred zone also “heralded the end of both the Bengali community in Harlem and the cross-racial and interethnic dynamics that were such a central part of that community’s formation and character.” In the closing pages of the book Habib Ullah Jr laments that “now South Asians keep their culture and put a wall around what is around them, and I think that’s a disservice to the coming generations.”
A classical tradition
Race in America remains as relevant today as at any other time in the country’s history. Ongoing race-related unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in reaction to the killing of an unarmed Black youth, is only the most recent example of a widespread perception that predominantly white law enforcement agencies still operate with impunity. But post-1965, middle-class Indian immigrants rarely look at African Americans with sympathy or solidarity, instead pouring their own toxic anxiety about colour, complexion and class into the tinder box of American racism. In that, they follow a long American tradition where every new immigrant group – from the Irish in the middle of the 19th century to Italians and Greeks in the 20th century – has climbed the social ladder by disparaging and sometimes violently attacking African Americans. What makes this unforgivable is that middle-class Indians would not have been able to migrate to the US without the neutralisation of race-based immigration laws that was a product of the Black-led Civil Rights Movement. Such racial and class opportunism also rears its ugly head in the present-day Indian American antipathy towards undocumented Hispanic immigrants. This position ignores the plight of their poorer cousins and long-abandoned precursors who are the centre of Bald’s exposition. Bengali Harlem swims against the current of typical middle-class Indian presumptions and prejudices that they transported and acquired anew in America.
In a way, success in ending racial segregation actually led to the breaking of the bonds of solidarity among disparate non-White races tethered together by their governmentally-sanctioned second-class status. Upwardly mobile Indians, who were Anglophones, had college degrees and were free of legal discrimination, could climb away from substantial sections of the African American and Hispanic population and look down with disdain towards those trapped in the darker side of the American economy, sociology and psychology. In the case of Indian immigrants, class identity trumped racial solidarity once racial discrimination became less explicit, violent, and legally entrenched. Because of the relatively small numbers of Southasian Americans, ‘Indianness’ was never successfully portrayed as a threat to ‘whiteness’, and it never needed the vitriol of anti-Black racism necessary to justify slavery and segregation. But that upwardly mobile identity of diasporic Indians also necessitates the invisibility of poorer Indians and Southasians who work as cabbies, dishwashers, cooks, street vendors and domestic help. These immigrants are excluded from the narrative of ‘Incredible Indians’.
The author is one among a newer generation of scholars that is bringing a sharper focus to questions of race, class and gender. Another among this cohort is Saru Jayaraman, who in Behind the Kitchen Door (2014) excoriates the low-wage restaurant industry of American cities that depends on disenfranchised, immigrant labour that is often Latino, Chinese or Southasian. After 11 September 2001, Jayaraman co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC-NY) in New York to aid the families of restaurant workers killed at the World Trade Center, and also organised the survivors to fight for pay, compensation and benefits. This eventually led to an organised movement called ROC-United that comprised of more than 10,000 workers and supporters in numerous American cities. Citing Jayaraman’s work and words, New York Times commentator Mark Bittman recently noted the connection between the racial-justice movement and the minimum-wage movement, and has discussed the ways in which fast-food workers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are working together to win a penny per pound of tomato for undocumented immigrant workers in Florida.
Biju Mathew, author of Taxi! Cabs and Capitalism in New York City (2008), shares Jayaraman’s activist profile as a member of the Organizing Committee of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. This alliance brings together mostly Southasian and West African drivers in solidarity. Meanwhile, Miabi Chatterji’s recent work on low-wage Southasian workers, titled The hierarchies of help: South Asian service workers in New York City, is a direct counter-point to one-dimensional myths about Indians in America today. Chatterji points out how exploitative the relationship often is between Southasian entrepreneurs and low-skilled restaurant workers who are sometimes co-ethnics, and are manipulated by the rhetoric of kinship and care to fend off the regulatory reach of the state. Each of these authors makes a practical and a theoretical case for inter-racial and inter-ethnic solidarity.
It is no surprise then, that in a short and sharp concluding section, Bald reasons that what is necessary here is not only the recovery of lost histories of Indian peddlers and seamen but “the possible futures that are connected to those pasts”. Bengali Harlem is undoubtedly one of the best books – in terms of detailed research, argumentation and elegance – on the Subaltern diaspora in North America. It also amounts to a biting critique of the self-congratulation of the post-1965 Indian diaspora as a close-minded collection of consumers and middle-class professionals without a collective, democratic ambition of creating a critical cosmopolitanism. Without Bald’s exemplary effort, the newer cohort would have succeeded in erasing traces of their working-class forbears. In the process of recovering a lost history, Bald has melded his emancipatory politics of working-class internationalism with an epistemology that breaks the boundaries of history, anthropology and sociology by interweaving archival research and textual analysis with oral interviews and ethnographic immersion.
~Krishnendu Ray is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU. He is the author of The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households (2004), and co-editor of Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia (2012).
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