The Immigration Act of 1917, enacted by the United States Congress over presidential veto, created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” from which all people attempting to migrate to the US were to be turned away. The zone included much of Asia and the Pacific Islands, this in addition to the exclusion of Chinese immigrants that’d been in place since 1882. Then, in 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that any East Indians who’d made it into the country prior to 1917 were ineligible to become citizens, casting them as permanent outsiders.
In a series of congressional hearings in 1945, a pair of Indian men lobbied the U.S. government to revisit the laws of Indian exclusion. As Vivek Bald recounts in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, the pair had differing interests but came to rely on a shared approach of stressing the contributions of Indian scientists, engineers, scholars, and businessmen. They achieved their goals, with a 1946 naturalization bill making already resident Indians eligible for citizenship, and an immigration policy designed to focus on skilled professionals rather than the working class, much as U.S. immigration policy still does.
In the midst of those 1945 hearings, with their focus on upper class “desirables,” a remarkable letter written on behalf of the silent majority of laboring Indian immigrants by a Bengali named Ibrahim Choudry was admitted to the record. As Bald describes it, Choudry’s letter was a lone but forceful voice of advocacy for “a shadow population of migrants, spread across the country, who had dropped ‘out of status’ as the immigration laws changed around them.” 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 themselves 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.
The men, families, and communities for whom Choudry spoke are the focus of Bald’s book, itself part of a larger, ongoing multimedia documentary project. These Indian migrants, Bald writes, provide us with a different picture of “assimilation,” in that they didn’t form ethnic enclaves as was so common, nor did they follow “the iconic path of immigrant upward mobility.” Instead, Indian Muslims formed networks embedded in working-class communities of color, and Bald’s work reveals a lost history of intermarriage and inter-ethnic community-making in which Muslim men from regions of present-day India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan married and started families with African American, Creole, Puerto Rican, and Afro-Caribbean women in cities from New Orleans to New York to Baltimore to Detroit. These stories from a time when Indian immigrants were vilified, criminalized, attacked, and excluded show them also to have found other kinds of belonging. They remind us as well, in this post-9/11 climate of skepticism, that Muslim immigrants and their descendants have been a part of life in the United States for more than a century.
When Bald named this project “Bengali Harlem” it was focused on a particular set of Bengali immigrants. Over years of research, though, the history he was reconstructing went far beyond New York, and grew to include many people who weren’t Bengali. “Over time,” he explains, “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.”
You can explore Bald’s larger project at bengaliharlem.com, and, below, listen to him discuss the project with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer: