Complicated "Blackness"

Vivek Bald. Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Oxford: Harvard University Press, 2013. 

Bald is among a number of historians who are interested in the migration of groups to America. Joining Bald, Putnam, Guglielmo, and Ngai is Hahamovitch who examines Jamaican laborers. These historians study various groups’ migrations to the United States to answer a series of questions. What were the origins of the immigrants? How did they develop ethnic identities? What were the shifts in U.S. attitudes and policies towards immigration? Why did groups migrate to the U.S? How did native-born Americans view immigrants? How has U.S immigration law shaped immigrants experiences and race relations?

In Bengali Harlem, Bald traces the lives of South Asian laborers to the United States specifically Harlem, New York between the 1890s and 1940s. For these migrants, their reasons for migrating to the United States went against the widely accepted notions that immigrants were in search of a better life and better future. Bald argues that previous the stories of the South Asian migrants were lost because they did not adhere to the same narrative of what immigration was. South Asian migrants’ reasons for migrating to America had nothing to do with American shores being a final destination; instead, these migrants took advantage of America’s fascination with the “Orient” and the handicrafts that come from there. Bald refer to these migrants as global labor migrants because not only did they travel to the United States they traveled to places such as Britain and Colombo. These immigrants were also different because unlike Italian, German, and Greeks, South Asians did not create ethnic enclaves, they formed networks in neighborhoods home to African Americans, Creoles, and Puerto Ricans. Whereas in Living the Revolution, Guglielmo demonstrates how Italians in trying to assimilate, prove their whiteness, and benefit from white privilege, supported racial differences, and attitudes of African American inferiority. In Bengali Harlem, these networks complicate the images and definitions of blackness. Instead of grouping amongst themselves to assert and ensure separate ethnicities, their intermingling with and intermarriages to African Americans, pushes away from the conventional phrase ‘black community” and demonstrates cross-racial solidarity. Since these networks have created blended ethnic/cultural identities, the questions of what is black and who is black become further complicated. The children that come as a result of these relationships and marriages add another complicated dimension to the question.

Thinking about my own area of research, I wonder how immigrants to coastal areas in North Carolina, Carolina, Georgia, and Florida have interacted with the Gullah/Geechee people. What brought them to the islands? Was it labor? The coast is perfect for those with experience with working on the water. These past couple of week’s readings has sparked many questions about migration and the Sea Islands, especially the islanders as migrants themselves. As the Gullah/Geechee people moved onto the mainland, what types of relationships or bonds did they form with people from other ethnic groups? Bald mentions Bengali men in Savannah, what kinds of Afro-Asian solidarity were bonds formed with and among Gullah/Geechee people? What unique culture developed because of these bonds?

Bald’s use of oral recollections from the descendants of the migrants not only personalizes these “lost” histories but demonstrate how so many cultures are in danger of being lost for good. I think about the Gullah/Geechee culture. There is so much migration from the islands that not even oral recollections can save it. For those who leave, the islands and their culture become distant memories.

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