Bengali Harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald

By Vivek Bald

Nineteenth-century Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island, luggage heavy with silks from their villages in Bengal. call for for “Oriental items” took those migrants on a curious course, from New Jersey’s boardwalks to the segregated South. Bald’s background unearths cross-racial affinities lower than the skin of early twentieth-century the US.

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Under the headline “Hindoos in America,” a reporter wrote: “The dark-skinned Hindoo peddlers who infest the seaside resorts of the Jersey coast in summer are very interesting people. They are invariably courteous and their general shrewdness when trying to affect a sale is most engaging. As a rule, they are handsome men with clean-cut features and intellectual faces. ”35 While steeped in condescension, this news item publicly marked the beginnings of what would be a decades-long presence of Bengali peddlers within the cultural and commercial arena of New Jersey’s seaside resorts.

Thankappan Nair’s A History of Calcutta’s Streets and the other written by Rudyard Kipling—both identify it as an area of inexpensive accommodations and drinking establishments that was home to a semi-permanent population of female European sex workers and the many sailors of different nationalities who passed through the port of Calcutta. S. South: “There are Seedee Boys, Bombay serangs and Madras fishermen . . Malays who insist upon marrying native women, grow jealous and run amok: Malay-Hindus, Hindu-Malay-whites, Burmese, Burma whites, Burma-native-whites, Italians with gold earrings and a thirst for gambling, Yankees of all the States, with Mulattoes and pure buck-n[——]ers, red and rough Danes, Cingalese, Cornish boys .

S. ”12 For Americans of the era, “India” was presented as part of a mysterious and exotic “Orient” that took in the entire swath of North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Ceylon. This “Orient,” in turn, was a blur of images, stories, references, and fantasies, derived from the contexts of the British, French, and other European empires. In their original context, Orientalist narratives and imagery had performed a particular kind of work. 13 In the American context, Orientalist notions were more free-floating.

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