Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America: A Book Review

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Bengali Harlem — a reconstructed narrative of the long-forgotten South Asians in America. Do you know about the fate of those South Asians who had to deal with the newly built immigration process?

Bengali Harlem by Vivek Bald is about the historical migration and assimilation of South Asians in America — a period in history long forgotten. The archival book delves into the account of ship’s logs, census records, marriage certificates, and local news items to explore the migration of Bengali settlers from different parts of Bengal, such as Hoogly, Noakhali, and Sylhet, into America.

The major themes of the book are immigration, racism, and identity — all imperative to understand the significance of this long-forgotten piece of history. The book covers a period from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century with stories of businessmen and sailors navigating their way into a xenophobic and racist America where the immigration rules made it difficult for migrants to settle down. This book gives an insight into the socio-economic conditions of that time, providing a glimpse into the racial tension that existed back then. 

What makes this book so eye-opening is the thoroughly researched account of the lives of Bengali immigrants who integrated into African American, Creole, and other minority communities to survive. These facts and stories of struggle impeccably illustrate the life of Bengali immigrants during a period when the U.S immigration policy excluded people of colour. For instance, you learn how Bengali immigrants from different rural villages would voyage to America with merchants from other countries, but the immigration policy would label them as “labourers” despite being merchants or peddlers. These policies were implemented unjustly to make them subservient.

The book is meticulous in terms of illustrating a vivid picture of the debarring immigration policy. This book a must-read for everyone to familiarise themselves with the discriminatory immigration policies of America, which are still prevalent today.

Usraat Fahmidah

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