“Illegal Immigration”? How the Bengazi Added to Our Cultural Mix Before the Civil Rights Act

07 Apr

One of the biggest lies told you in school is about “America being the land of opportunity for immigrants”. It’s a lie because before 1965 immigration from non-white parts of the world was illegal. Many of the Chinese who came here to work on the Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th Century, were boxed up and shipped back to China as soon as the railroad was finished.

In terms of “non-whiteness” the Irish were only brought here in the 1840’s through 1870’s because they were cheaper than slaves, and made excellent cannon fodder during the Civil War. Black folks and Irish competed, and often worked for and on the same low paying dirty jobs, from digging coal mines, to ditch digging. That competition was sometimes not friendly – as demonstrated in the New York City Draft Riots during the Civil War, and later during the early Labor Union period of the 1900’s. But there is a pretty rich history between the two groups, certainly not all antagonistic.

South Asia was particularly singled out by American Immigration authorities, which is why few South Asians can trace their history in the US back more than 50 years. But some Indians and what would later become Pakistanis did come here nearly 150 years ago. They stayed here, they married, and raised families. A fascinating book (next on my loyal Kindle) uncovers this previously unknown and ignored bit of history…

The Bengazi in Harlem. A group of largely Muslim South Asian immigrants and their African-American and Puerto Rican Wives at a  1952 banquet at New York’s Pakistan League of America.

Bengali Harlem: Author documents a lost history of immigration in America

In the next few weeks, Fatima Shaik, an African-American, Christian woman, will travel “home” from New York to Kolkata, India.

It will be a journey steeped in a history that has remained unknown until the publication last month of a revelatory book by Vivek Bald. And it will be a journey of contemplation as Shaik, 60, meets for the first time ancestors with whom she has little in common.

“I want to go back because I want to find some sort of closure for my family, said Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience.

That Americans like Shaik, who identify as black, are linked by blood to a people on the Indian subcontinent seems, at first, improbable.

South Asian immigration boomed in this country after the passage of landmark immigration legislation in 1965. But long before that, there were smaller waves of new Americans who hailed from India under the British Empire.

The first group, to which Shaik’s grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, belonged, consisted of peddlers who came to these shores in the 1890s, according to Bald. They sold embroidered silks and cottons and other “exotic” wares from the East on the boardwalks of Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey. They eventually made their way south to cities like New Orleans and Atlanta and even farther to Central America.

The second wave came in the 1920s and ‘30s. They were seamen, some merchant marines.

Most were Muslim men from what was then the Indian province of Bengal and in many ways, they were the opposite of the stereotype of today’s well-heeled, highly educated South Asians.

South Asian immigration was illegal then – the 1917 Immigration Act barred all idiots, imbeciles, criminals and people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.”

The Bengalis got off ships with little to their name.

They were mostly illiterate and worked as cooks, dishwashers, merchants, subway laborers. In New York, they gradually formed a small community of sorts in Spanish Harlem. They occupied apartments and tenement housing on streets in the 100s. They worked hard.

And they did all they could do to become American in a nation of segregation and prejudice.

A huge part of that meant marrying Latino and African-American women – there were no Bengali women around – and letting go of the world they left behind.

Unlike other immigrants of the time, they didn’t settle in their own enclaves. Rather, they began life anew in established neighborhoods of color: Harlem, West Baltimore and in New Orleans, Treme.

By doing so, they also became a part of black and Latino heritage in America.

“One of the most important things I took from the research is the fact that in the years of Asian exclusion, African-American and Puerto Rican communities actually gave (the Bengali men) the possibilities and the shelter to rebuild their lives,” said Bald, a documentarian who teaches writing and digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Those communities lived up to the promise of the nation when the nation failed to do so … because they were equally marginalized and equally deprived of full membership.”

Musa married Tennie Ford, a black Catholic woman. They raised their children near New Orleans’ Congo Square, where slaves once gathered. Ford took her children to church on Sundays while Musa knelt on a prayer rug and faced Mecca.

Musa died when Ford was pregnant with her son. Ford raised her children with African-American traditions; the ties to Bengal faded.

Shaik was aware of her Indian roots. Her name was the first obvious hint.

When she was little, in the 1950s and ‘60s, she rushed to the porch when phone books arrived with a thud. Her family was the only Shaik. She longed to find another name that was similar.

In India, the history of Bengali peoples evolved and was documented in print as India gained independence in 1947 and the nation was partitioned. East Bengal became East Pakistan and later, in 1971, Bangladesh.

But the sons of that land who came to America seeking a better life remained invisible. Until Bald began digging around.

Last month, he published  “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.”

Vivek Bald’s new book on Bengali migration tells a history that has been largely unknown.


The book has generated palpable excitement among the descendants of the Bengali immigrants. 

“I just said, ‘wow,’” said Nurul Amin, 62, whose father once sold hotdogs from a Harlem pushcart.

“This put a stamp on our world,” he said.

Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience, said she was finally learning her grandfather’s history. It dispelled notions of a monolithic black identity and connected her to a faraway land…. (more)

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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in Black History, The Post-Racial Life


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