Collectively [Bengali immigrants to the US in the 1900s-1940s] used Americans’ confusion over their “race” to their advantage, developing a fluid and contextual approach to their identity. They were “white” when they attempted to claim citizenship, “Hindoo” when selling exotic goods, “black” or “Porto Rican” when disappearing into U.S. cities or actively attempting to evade the immigration authorities. They were “Indios” on the streets of Spanish Harlem, and their Puerto Rican and African American wives were “East Indian” when they ran their Oriental gift shops or greeted customers in their restaurants.
The book documents the first wave of migration for South Asians into the US, from the late 1800s up till around the 1940s. They were predominantly Bengali and tended to be based in two main hubs: New Orleans (clothesmakers and purveyors of related goods) and New York (sailors and shipworkers). They built families and communities with the local African-American and Latin@ communities, with a lot of intermarriages. During that time there was a huge fad for all things “Oriental”, which they capitalised on.
One thing that really fascinated me about the book was how the existence of these immigrants really confounded US race relations, especially during the heights of the Jim Crow era. They weren’t black, but they weren’t really white either - what the fuck were they? Their race was recorded as all sorts of things: White, Black, Coloured, Hindoo, Turkish, Malay (that last one makes me laugh out of personal irony).
As the quote demonstrates, they - and not just them either, but the communities around them - used that racial ambiguity for various means. At one point some South Asian activists tried to use the fact that they were Caucasian (the Caucus regions also covered a lot of South Asia) to prove that they were White and therefore should have citizenship/residency reinstated (this was during a time where the US gov was taking away citizenship from particular groups of people). Some others worked in solidarity with Black activists to assert their own rights. Some Black people called themselves “Hindoo” and appropriated South Asian culture, reinventing their identities as being from some “exotic Oriental land” peddling carpets and garments as a way to protect themselves from anti-Black laws.
The children of these immigrants, almost all of whom are part Black or part Latin@, talked about how their racial identities are similarly ambiguous depending on context. One of the interviewees, whose dad is Bengali and whose mum is Puerto Rican, talked about how he’d be Puerto Rican through and through when hanging out with his maternal cousins, but then he’d go to meet his dad’s friends and be totally Bengali.
There’s a lot in there about managing multiple cultures, involvements in activism, how the immigrants built support networks for future waves of immigration, how they coped with Partition and the Liberation War (making a lot of them effectively “stateless” since their origin city had changed hands multiple times), how they were integrated, assimilated, and eventually forgotten - until now.
I really really recommend reading the book if you want to know more about race relations in the US from a perspective that doesn’t get heard about much, and how diasporas create their own supports.
Being Bengali myself I sometimes wonder if migration, liminality, and transience are things that exist in our blood - generations of people moving around, having our own borders constantly rebuilt and destroyed and redefined, confounding others wherever we go. My entire family tree are all migrants and travellers, probably for generations, even before any of them reached the Subcontinent. I’m probably related to some of these US immigrants. It’s interesting and ironic how it’s taken me 29 years and moving across the world to find anyone who has a connection to that amorphous concept of home.