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BENGALI
HARLEM
and the Lost Histories of
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
South Asian America
ALD
B
K
E
VIV
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of
South Asian America
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
Bengali Harlem
and the
Lost Histories
of
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
South Asian America
Vivek Bald
Harvard University Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London England
2013
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
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Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bald, Vivek.
Bengali Harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America / Vivek Bald.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-674-06666-3
1. South Asian Americans—History—20th century. 2. South Asian Americans—
Cultural assimilation. 3. Muslims—United States—History—20th century.
4. Working class—United States—History—20th century. 5. Haidar, Dada Amir.
6. United States—Race relations—History—20th century. 7. Harlem (New York, N.Y.)—
Race relations—History—20th century. 8. United States—Emigration and
immigration—History—20th century. 9. South Asia—Emigration and immigration—
History—20th century. I. Title.
E184.S69B35 2012
305.891’4073—dc23
2012022231
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
For my daughter.
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
Contents
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Author’s Note
ix
Introduction: Lost in Migration
1
1. Out of the East and into the South
11
2. Between Hindoo and Negro
49
3. From Ships’ Holds to Factory Floors
94
4. The Travels and Transformations of Amir Haider Khan
137
5. Bengali Harlem
160
6. The Life and Times of a Multiracial Community
189
Conclusion: Lost Futures
215
List of Abbreviations
231
Notes
233
Acknowledgments
277
Index
283
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
Author’s Note
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
A
lthough many of the people about whom I have written came
from regions that are now part of the nations of Bangladesh and
Pakistan, most of the period covered here pre-dates the creation of those
nations. When I am writing about the pre-1947 period, I have chosen to
refer to these individuals as Indian and their place of origin as India in
order to maintain historical accuracy. I use the term South Asian when
referring either to the post-1947 period or to a stretch of time that includes both the pre- and post-1947 periods. I use the term Bengali to refer
to many of the individuals who appear in this book in order to specify
their origins in the larger region of Bengal, both West (in present-day
India) and East (in present-day Bangladesh). To many of these migrants,
regional (Bengali) and sub-regional (e.g.: Sylheti) identity appears to have
been more salient on a day-to-day basis than any national identification.
The research for this book entailed piecing together archival
documents—ship manifests; census enumerations; birth, death, and marriage certificates—in which British and U.S. officials transliterated South
Asian names in multiple ways. The migrants whose lives and travels are
recorded in these documents also likely used different English spellings
of their names at different times. In the interest of clarity, I have standardized my spelling of specific individuals’ names within the text of the
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
ix
x
Author’s Note
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
book. I have generally chosen the spelling that appears most frequently
in the archives or the name that the individual appears to have settled on
in his own daily life in New Orleans, Harlem, or elsewhere. These spellings often take forms that might be considered unorthodox by contemporary South Asian readers (e.g., Ally, Fozlay, Surker, Raymond, Box).
When I refer to specific archival documents in the footnotes, I use the
spellings that appear in those original documents.
I named this project “Bengali Harlem” early on in its development,
when it focused primarily on a set of interconnected families of Bengali
ex-seamen who had settled and intermarried in Harlem. At that time,
the title was literal, referring to a particular set of people in a particular
place. Over several years of research, as I followed an expanding trail
of archival documents, the history I was piecing together grew far beyond Harlem and it grew to include many other people who were not
Bengali—from the Kashmiri seaman and activist Dada Amir Haider
Khan to Creole, African American, and Puerto Rican women. Over time,
the name has become metaphorical rather than literal, standing for a particular set of encounters and possibilities tied to South Asian life making
and place making in U.S. neighborhoods of color.
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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Each and every identity is extended through a relationship
with the Other.
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/binghamton/detail.action?docID=3301186.
Created from binghamton on 2020-10-26 22:53:26.
Introduction
Lost in Migration
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
I
n March of 1945, two men from India led testimony before the
House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the U.S.
Congress.1 One was a Muslim who had settled in Arizona’s Salt River
Valley in the 1910s, where a handful of farmers from the subcontinent
had turned hundreds of acres of land toward the production of rice.2
The other was a Punjabi Sikh entrepreneur who came to New York City
in 1926 and established a business supplying luxury Eastern imports to
the city’s elites.3 Both men were lobbying Congress to make East Indians eligible for U.S. citizenship. Their task was not an easy one. In the
early years of the twentieth century, Indian immigrants had been vilified. When hundreds of Punjabi workers began to arrive in California
and the Pacific Northwest around 1904, they found white citizens’
groups and labor unions already lined up against them, emboldened by
years of targeting immigrants from China and Japan. The nativists focused their vitriol on the Indian newcomers, whipping up a moral panic
over what they called the “tide of turbans” that threatened to swamp
white America. At times, the xenophobia boiled over into violence; in
September 1907, a mob of white lumber-mill workers rampaged through
the northwestern town of Bellingham, Washington, attacking Indian
migrants indiscriminately, rounding them up and forcing them from
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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1
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
2
Introduction
their jobs and homes.4 By 1917, the federal government had passed legislation barring Indians and virtually all other Asians from entering the
United States. The 1917 Immigration Act made East Indians equivalent
in the eyes of the law to alcoholics, “professional beggars,” and the insane; all were undesirable aliens, to be turned away at the borders. In
1923, the U.S. Supreme Court added a further layer to the exclusion regime by ruling that those East Indians who were already resident in the
United States were racially ineligible to become U.S. citizens. Not
only had Indians been cast as undesirable, but they had been made permanent outsiders. For the next twenty years, it remained this way: Indians were prevented from immigrating to the United States, from owning
land, from voting, and from naturalizing—from becoming an accepted
part of the nation.5
Mubarek Ali Khan and J. J. Singh sought to change this status quo,
and as they stood before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, the two Indian lobbyists could not have seemed more different. Khan
was a graying middle-aged man who wore spectacles, plain suits, and a
cap that marked his Muslim faith. At six feet, J. J. Singh towered over
Khan. He was in his late forties, handsome, self-assured, and polished in
both demeanor and appearance. He had short hair and was clean shaven,
having dispensed with his turban and beard after settling in the United
States, and he favored fine suits.6 The two men had been lobbying Congress over several sessions, each advocating a different approach to redressing Indian exclusion. Khan’s proposed legislation was focused and
practical; it sought naturalization rights for the roughly three thousand
Indians who were estimated to have settled in the United States prior to
the Supreme Court decision of 1923. Most of these immigrants were farm
and factory laborers—exactly the population of “undesirable aliens”
that the 1917 Immigration Act had sought to keep out of the country.
However, the three thousand had now been living and working in the
United States continuously for more than twenty years, and Khan’s bill
began from an assertion that they were already Americans in every sense
but the law. Singh’s bill was more extensive and more ambitious. It would
repeal the very logic of exclusion, making Indians racially eligible to
become U.S. citizens, and it would create a quota allowing one hundred
Indians per year to naturalize. His legislation, however, was focused pri-
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
Introduction 3
marily on the future; it would favor new, and presumably more highly
qualified, immigrants over pre-1923 settlers, reserving seventy-five of
each year’s naturalizations for such applicants.7
As different as the two bills were, Khan and Singh and their respective
supporters had come to lean on similar arguments when they went before
Congress. Both men’s camps bolstered their cases for repeal of the naturalization laws by stressing the accomplishments of “leading” Indian
Americans of the day, and each presented lists and biographies of these
scientists, engineers, and scholars. Such individuals, they argued, were
wronged by the current laws; they were prevented from becoming American citizens even though they had contributed their considerable knowledge and expertise to the United States. Khan also stressed the injustice
suffered by large-scale Indian farmers, like those in Arizona, who could
not own the land they had made productive. Singh spoke of the Indian
businessmen who could not do meaningful business in the United States
because they were restricted to short-term tourist visas. Both sides
stressed the participation of Indian forces and Indian men in the war effort and touted the benefits of expanded U.S. trade with an India that
would likely gain its independence at the war’s end.8
The majority of Indians who were living in the United States in 1945
and who were being prevented from becoming U.S. citizens were, in
fact, not scientists, not businessmen, not engineers, scholars, or even
large-scale agriculturalists. They were farm laborers and industrial and
service workers. But in the 1945 hearing, this was mentioned only sporadically and often obliquely. Even Mubarek Ali Khan, who represented
this group, was cautious in how he described “the three thousand.”
J. J. Singh made a few references to the farm and factory workers, but always in the negative: that is, he assured the committee that because his
bill required that most of the one hundred naturalizations per year be
filled by Indians from India (rather than by those already living in the
United States) his legislation would not result in a flood of Indian workers becoming U.S. citizens. Acknowledging that some congressional
committee members were still “worried about the so-called laboring
classes,” Singh went so far as to assure them that “with the industrialization schemes that are afoot in India, I do not anticipate that [any workers]
would care to leave India” to come to the United States. 9 As the hearings
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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4
Introduction
Copyright © 2013. Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
progressed, no one seemed willing to speak boldly for the silent majority
of Indians in the United States, for a shadow population of migrants,
spread across the country, who had dropped “out of status” as the immigration laws changed around them. No one, that is, except a Bengali
from New York City named Ibrahim Choudry.
Choudry was a former director of an Indian merchant sailors’ club in
Manhattan and seaman turned community activist, secretary of the India Association for American Citizenship. Although allied with Mubarek
Ali Khan, he was willing—and likely felt bound—to be more forceful
than Khan in his advocacy. In the midst of the March 1945 hearings
before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, a letter that
Choudry had written was introduced into testimony. There is no indication that it was read aloud, which likely means that it was simply handed
by Khan to the appropriate clerk to be added to the typed record after
the conclusion of the hearing. Shuffled into archival obscurity, Choudry’s
letter spoke up unequivocally for a population that other witnesses
were less forthright in acknowledging. “I do not speak . . . here for the
few,” Choudry wrote:
I speak for the many. I am not speaking for the transient element—
the student the business man, the lecturer, the interpreter of India’s
past and present, whose interests and ties in this country are temporary, the man or the woman whose roots are in India and who eventually returns home. I talk for those of us who, by our work and by
our sweat and by our blood, have helped build fighting industrial
America today. I talk for those of our men who, in factory and field,
in all sections of American industry, work side by side with their fellow American workers to strengthen the industrial framework of
this country. . . . We have married here; our children have been
born here. . . . I speak for such as myself, for those of my brothers
who work in the factories of the East and in Detroit. . . . I speak for
the workers and the farmers of our community whose lives have
been bound to this country’s destiny for 23 years or longer. I speak
for these men who while they themselves have no rights under oriental exclusion have seen their sons go off to war these last years to
fight for a democracy which they—their fathers—could not them-
Bald, Vivek. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Harvard University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook
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Introduction 5
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selves enjoy. I speak for men who . . . expect to die in the country to
which they have given their best years. . . . [W]e simply ask you for
justice—American justice.10
Despite his eloquence, Choudry was on the losing side of U.S. immigration history. Although the naturalization bill that President Harry S.
Truman signed into law in July 1946 did make all Indians already resident in the country eligible for citizenship, the law was grounded in the
ideas that J. J. Singh and his allies had championed and to which Mubarek
Ali Khan had largely assented. These ideas—that U.S. immigration policies toward India should favor scientists, engineers, and businesspeople
and be driven by national considerations of trade and foreign policy—
not only won out in 1946 but were eventually enshrined in the Hart-Celler
Act,11 which opened the door to tens of thousands of skilled professionals from the subcontinent in 1965. These are the South Asian immigran …
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