Last week the Whiting Foundation announced the second class of recipients of the Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship, which celebrates and supports faculty in the humanities who embrace public engagement as part of the scholarly vocation. Among the 2017-2018 cohort is Vivek Bald, a scholar, writer, and documentary filmmaker who will use the time and funding granted by Whiting to continue his recovery of the stories of South Asian immigrants who quietly became part of some of the most iconic neighborhoods of color in the United States. He tells some of those stories in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, which we published a few years back, and he’s working now to complete a documentary titled In Search of Bengali Harlem, a collaboration with the playwright Alaudin Ullah and musician/composer Vijay Iyer.
Here’s the description of the project from the Whiting Foundation’s site, where you can also see a preview of the film:
One of the earliest groups of Muslims to settle in the United States risked their lives to come to the country amid the harsh restrictions on entry of the Asian Exclusion Era (1890-1940). South Asian men working under indenture-like conditions on British steamers jumped ship in northeastern ports and linked up with clandestine networks of their fellows to start new lives working in restaurants and factories across the country. Many made their way to Harlem, where they integrated through marriage into African-American and Puerto Rican communities, in effect “disappearing” into the neighborhood.
Vivek Bald will use the Fellowship to help complete a documentary film recovering the lost history of these men, their families, and their contributions to American urban life. The story unfolds from the perspective of Bald’s collaborator, Bangladeshi-American playwright Alaudin Ullah, who is in search of answers about his parents’ own path to Harlem. As the search ripples outward, the film illuminates a larger twentieth-century history of Bengali Muslim settlement, inter-marriage, and cross-racial community-making in U.S. cities. As part of the Fellowship project, Bald will also implement a digital crowd-sourcing project to collect and share more stories of the descendants of these immigrants.
Bald, who became a documentary filmmaker before pursuing his PhD, met Ullah in the 1990s. That encounter inspired the extensive archival research that culminated in Bald’s book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. The new documentary and website build upon this scholarly work, closing the circle to bring to life the family narrative that introduced Bald to this powerfully multicultural American moment.
The Whiting Foundation believes that “scholarship in the humanities is crucial in pushing forward the boundaries of our knowledge and understanding of the world,” and that “engagement with the humanities provides a blueprint for full, informed participation in civic life in a pluralist democracy; teaches the habit of thinking deeply and broadly, ensuring that we ask questions about history and context when making important decisions; and develops skills that allow us to contribute more to a productive economy, including analytical thinking, facility with complex ideas, clear and persuasive communication, and evidence-based decision-making.” We most certainly agree.