A photograph of Alaudin Ullah's father, Habib Ullah, with his family in Spanish Harlem
Alaudin Ullah's father, Habib Ullah, with his family in Spanish Harlem Photo courtesy of Vivek Bald and Habib Ullah Jr.

Author and filmmaker Vivek Bald is highlighting the lost history of South Asian immigrants in America.

Starting in the 1800s, South Asian men from India, Pakistan, and what is now Bangladesh came to the U.S. as seamen and peddlers of textiles and handicrafts. Instead of forming their own enclaves in America, these migrants assimilated into pre-existing communities of color—in Harlem, Detroit, and New Orleans—by marrying, living with, and working alongside black and Puerto Rican Americans.

Partially as a result of this assimilation, their legacy in some of America’s most diverse cities has been all but erased. In 2013 Vivek Bald, an associate professor of comparative media studies and writing at MIT, published the book Bengali Harlem, which charted the migration patterns of these South Asian men and explored the lives they lived and the legacies they left behind in America. Bald first learned of this other side of South Asian history after the actor and playwright Alaudin Ullah suggested making a documentary about Ullah’s journey to discover the past of his father, Habib Ullah, a Bangladeshi ex-seaman who had settled in Spanish Harlem, married a Puerto Rican woman, and worked in the restaurant industry.

After winning MIT’s Levitan Prize in the Humanities and being named a Whiting Public Engagement Fellow in March of this year, Bald is planning to finish the documentary and collect more stories from descendants of this early wave of South Asian immigration into a web project he’s calling Lost Histories. I spoke to Bald about some of ways these immigrants’ stories have vanished in the histories of American cities, and how he is trying to preserve them.

In the book’s introduction, you mention that the rhetoric of lobbying efforts to let Indians become naturalized citizens highlighted only scientists, engineers, and scholars, leaving out people working blue-collar jobs. How does this book provide a more nuanced look at South Asians in the workforce?

When I started doing research for the book, in some ways it felt like a continuation of my first film project, Taxi-valla, a documentary about recent immigrant taxi drivers from South Asia in the ‘90s. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s I noticed there was a very stark division starting to form within South Asian communities. On one hand, you had quite a large, established community of Indian and other South Asian professionals who had come to the U.S. in the wake of the 1965 Immigration Act, which was written to favor professionals. On the other hand, you had a much more recent wave of working-class migration, of folks who were coming from not just India but Pakistan and Bangladesh, from less-privileged backgrounds and working as cab drivers and street vendors.

It was such a stark divide and it was clear the older, more established, wealthier sector of South Asian communities had determined the public face of South Asians in the U.S. and also didn’t seem to want to deal with this new migration of working-class folks from the subcontinent.

At the time, I wasn’t aware that in fact there had been a working class South Asian migration to the U.S. that stretched back more than a century, and that’s what became clear as I started doing the archival research for the book. It changed the overarching narrative of South Asian immigration to the U.S. because you could see the professionals who came after 1965 were just one part of a much larger, continuous migration that had been predominantly working class up until that point. It became clear that in fact both before and after the passage of the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act, which had supposedly shut the doors to South Asian migration, there was a steady stream of South Asian working-class migration to the U.S.

1952 Pakistan League Dinner in New York (Courtesy of Vivek Bald)

Why do you think there isn’t a greater collective memory about the presence of these immigrants in American cities?

That’s a question I’ve been grappling with all along, and there are different answers. One is simply that by necessity South Asian immigrants who came here during the Asian Exclusion Era had to live their lives quietly and out of the spotlight, and those immigrants didn’t follow the same path as other immigrant groups that led to more visibility, such as creating ethnic enclaves. So this earlier group of immigrants, by necessity, had to keep a lower profile.

They did start restaurants, but those restaurants were really part of the communities that they had joined. So some of the earliest Indian restaurants were in Harlem and catered to the local communities that these South Asian men had become a part of both by living in Harlem and by marrying within African American and Puerto Rican families.

Part of it, too, I think has to do with class and the kind of anti-black racism that exists within South Asian communities. When a larger wave of South Asian migration started happening in the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, when the earlier migrants were still around in New York City and running some of the only Indian restaurants in the city, my sense is that the newer immigrants sort of discounted the stories of the earlier immigrants. Somehow, by marrying into and becoming part of African American and Puerto Rican communities, older immigrants were considered an anomaly, not fully part of the South Asian story.

Why, despite that anti-black racism in the South Asian community, did earlier immigrants choose to integrate themselves with African American communities?

For those predominantly Bengali Muslim ship workers who were settling in places like the Lower East Side and Harlem, those were the communities and the neighborhoods that took them in, that provided them with the possibility to create new lives.

We can't know what the interior lives and attitudes were of individual immigrants from 75 or 100 years ago, so I don't think you could say that this was a group of immigrants who were completely free of anti-black racism. But what became clear to me is that there was a lot in the lives of this particular group of South Asian immigrants to counteract anti-blackness—the experience of living and working side-by-side with people from all over the black diaspora, of becoming part of African American and Puerto Rican extended families, of depending upon one another in day-to-day situations, of recognizing shared daily struggles.

One of the things that Alaudin's half-brother, Habib Jr.—who grew up in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s and ‘50s—often laments is the fact that the South Asians who came after 1965 were more insular. They created their own neighborhoods and communities and kept to themselves, cutting off the possibility for these other kinds of daily exchanges and the transformations that they can bring.

You mention that these immigrants professed to be white when they wanted to claim citizenship, “Hindoo” when marketing their goods, and black or Puerto Rican when trying to evade immigration authorities. How did their racial fluidity help them blend or “disappear” into cities?

I think that in some ways South Asian men or Bengali Muslim men who “disappeared” into Harlem of the Lower East Side were taking advantage of the ignorance of white New Yorkers and the authorities in terms of those authorities’ ability or willingness to distinguish between different communities of color. Blending in or integrating into these communities was a necessity of survival for these men as undocumented immigrants. People in the African American community passed as South Asian in order to navigate Jim Crow, and there are records that suggest South Asian men were purchasing documents to take on Puerto Rican identities and names.

There are people who would say [these men] were criminals who were engaged in illegal activity, but they were coming from a place that had been colonized by the British, where they didn’t have full citizenship in their own home region. They were colonial subjects coming to a country that had put up immigration laws that we can see very clearly now were racist laws put in place to keep out Asian immigrants at a time when European immigrants were being allowed in.

You started the book with a look at Bengali immigrants in Harlem. How did you find and start to route their presence and influence in other cities like Detroit and New Orleans?

It was like detective work: following a trail, and following every branch of that trail. I started with marriage records in Manhattan because it was clear from the stories Alaudin had heard that there were men besides his father who married within African American and Puerto Rican communities. I went to the marriage records in the municipal archives and started looking up particular surnames like Ullah and found all these marriage records from the 1920s and ‘30s in which these men were marrying African American and Latina women. And two-thirds of their home addresses were in Harlem and one-third of them were in the Lower East Side.

It started from there, and then I started looking at Census records and there were one or two in Manhattan that pointed toward New Orleans, and when I followed that it opened into that earlier history of peddlers separate from Alaudin's father. At the same time, I was looking at the British National Archives and there were records of the British government surveilling South Asian ship workers who had jumped ship in the U.S. and their connections to Indian national activity. Those records pointed to other cities as well, like Detroit. It became clear that all the cities these men were going to were factory cities, and they were living on the outskirts of these big steel factories or auto factories.

Now that you have received the Levitan Prize in the Humanities and been named a Whiting Public Engagement Fellow, how do you plan to use the funding to further the documentary and your Lost Histories project?  

One of the things that the fellowships have allowed is for me to take a year of sabbatical for teaching so that I can concentrate on these projects. The intention is to finish all of this within a year from now: to have a completed documentary by next summer and launch a full version of the web project by that time.

The documentary is centered more around a personal story, around Alaudin’s own story of trying to uncover and answer questions about his father and his mother. Alaudin went back into Bangladesh to his mother and father’s villages with a film crew. The film starts with a personal quest, and that leads to an unfolding of the larger historical set of stories that Alaudin’s parents were part of.

One of the unanticipated but really positive things about the book coming out was that a number of people who were connected to these histories came forward and started contacting us. So some of those folks who are the children of Bengali/Puerto Rican or Bengali/African American families are in the documentary, as well.

I’ve been developing the web part of the project at MIT with students and the Open Documentary Lab. It will be ongoing, a collective community project for the people connected to these histories to tell their own stories in a public forum in a way that challenges our ideas of what South Asian history is and looks like. We’re conceiving it as a space for descendants of these histories—the ship jumpers who settled in Harlem and Detroit, and the earlier silk peddlers who settled in New Orleans and the South—to share their own family photographs and stories that have been written out of traditional histories.

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