“Bengali Harlem” Shows the Indelible Tie Between South Asians and the Black Community

The first Bengali immigrants only made it with the help of Black Americans

There is a knot at the heart of South Asian America. Racism against Black people runs deep within our communities, some of it carried over from our respective countries, some of it learned here in America, encouraged by the possibility of economic mobility and a myth that tells us that the acceptable South Asian American aligns with white culture and its dominance over Black people. But this was certainly not how the first South Asian Americans did it, as Vivek Bald details in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, a book that has come to be canon among a generation searching for their histories. Bald digs up stories of what he considers the first significant settlement of South Asians in America, and uncovers how, when met with racist immigration practices in America as they traveled from a homeland colonized by the British, they built communities with Black people in order to survive. 

In 1897, a dozen Bengali men disembarked from the S.S. St. Louis docked at Pier 14 in New York City, a detour from its usual stop at Ellis Island, where the building set up to inspect immigrants had been (accidentally, according to records) burned to the ground overnight. These men had journeyed a long way across British-controlled waterways and debaucherous port cities like Colombo, Karachi, and London. They were armed with delicate, chikan-embroidered fabric that they planned to sell along New Jersey’s beach resorts, on the sunny, teeming boardwalks of Atlantic City to Asbury Park. These were popular goods:  Americans were infatuated with the smells, sounds, and aesthetics of the mystical Orient and would gladly pay a pretty penny for rugs, curios, and silks if it meant that they could seem worldly. 

These passengers were part of the roughly 1,500 Bengali men who came to America between 1880 and 1920, recounts Bald. They hailed from Hooghly, West Bengal, and loosely regarded each other as family. And a small number of them had chosen to make America their home. Before Bald’s research, most records of South Asians in America in the early 20th century indicated a small population of students and other temporary residents, who spent some time in the United States before returning to their homes, with a few outstanding exceptions in the West coast. But the men Bald studied kept coming back. 

They occupied a strange place in the American imagination, which did not know what to do with anyone who fell between acceptable whites and dehumanized Black people. Some immigrants, like the Irish, were gradually shuffled into whiteness, but the Bengalis were hard to characterize. They were seen as “exotic and peculiar, inscrutable and fanatical, ridiculous and treacherous,” writes Bald. Like South Asians today, these men were subject to the whims of an immigration system that could choose to rescind its acceptance at random. As they are today, these men were entering a country that loved their culture, but did not love them.

These men were entering a country that loved their culture, but did not love them.

As they disembarked the ship, the travelers were handled like cattle by medical practitioners, who combed their hair for lice and checked under eyelids for trachoma. Immigration professionals interrogated on jobs, political and religious views, marital statuses. To the last question, some men may have responded that yes, they were married, and that their wives lived in America. Some Bengali merchants had moved inwards to places like Tremé, New Orleans, where they had fallen in love with Black women, had operated their businesses within Black communities, and had become fathers to Black-Bengali children.

But these answers didn’t pass muster: they were seen as little more than economic threats. The immigration official decided that the men of the S.S. St. Louis must be breaking the Contract Labor Law (1885), an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) that stopped companies from bringing in contracted workers, a law that was supposedly created to protect American jobs. After twelve days in detention, the officer ordered them deported back to their previous London port. 

The deportation didn’t last very long. Within the year, the merchants had found their way back into the U.S., splitting into smaller groups and trying different ports of entry to make their efforts less obvious. There was poetry to their bravery, explains Bald. Despite the odds stacked against them, they may have returned because they had started to feel at home within Black communities in America. With the women they loved and their neighbors, Bengali men would have shared a thread of oppression, one group brutally enslaved, pillaged, and left to live in poor enclaves even after they were freed, the other group invisible in America and under colonial rule in the homes they had left in India. 

Among these men were those like Sofur Ally, who moved to New Orleans in 1895, married America Santa Cruz, a woman of Afro-Cuban and Creole descent in 1900, and by 1910 had three sons. Bald unearths records that indicate a string of difficulties for Ally: in the 1920s, he had naturalized and had become the proprietor of a “dry goods” store. But by 1930, the Depression had set in, and the records no longer showed that Ally owned the store. Most likely, he had gone back to street peddling along with his sons, the very trade that had brought Ally to the town. Eventually, after 35 years in New Orleans, he began to act as a middle-man between New Orleans and arriving Bengali communities, helping with paperwork, signing as witness on immigration documents, setting up welcome events at local churches.

America has been presented as an equal opportunity provider. But the history shows that this is a convenient bending of the past.

South Asian Americans have been molded to show that they have had relative academic and financial success; because this is the dominant representation of us, we have to mimic these qualities in order to be seen. In turn, America has been presented as an equal opportunity provider, one where people from different countries can immigrate to and with a little bit of hard work, be on equal financial footing with white people. But the history of those like Ally shows that this is a convenient bending of the past.

In between color lines, when race was still seen as a binary between black and white, Ally would have faced several challenges and privileges. In these years, South Asians were even more foreign than their Asian counterparts, immigrants from China who had inspired the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the minds of Americans, they came from a nebulous, strange place that spanned the Middle East, North Africa, and large swaths of Asia. This meant that they were not neatly classified into the stark color lines enforced by Jim Crow laws, which had divided nearly every public facility: whites to one side, Black people to the other, the Black side poorer and seen as inferior. Bengali peddlers fanned out to segregated cities like Chattanooga, Charleston, and Dallas and crossed between these lines. 

Journalists scratched their heads trying to define South Asians in reports, with one 1900 story on sailors in New York City stating that the men were “all so dark as to be taken easily for Negroes, but their features are Caucasian, and their hair is straight, stiff, and wiry.” They were still seen as dangerous, however, “peaceable and orderly up to a certain point and then they lose all self-control and generally resort to the knife.”

Some made use of the gray areas that South Asians occupied, like Reverend Jesse Routte, a Black man who wore a velveteen robe and a turban on his head and lived in a white Mobile, Alabama hotel, eating in downtown restaurants and willfully passing the color line. But being a South Asian did not make one safe. They were still considered inferior to white people, like Abdul Fara, who sat in the free white persons section in New Orleans and was eventually attacked by a fellow passenger, who took a heavy wooden sign and smashed it over his head.

No amount of pleading could change the fact that these men were not white. Abba Dolla, an Afghan trader who was part of the Bengali network and moved to Savannah in the 1890s after working the New Jersey summer resorts, offered proof to the courts of his whiteness, touting his skin, transparent enough for his blue veins to show, and his ownership of a piece of land in Savannah’s white-only cemetery. Though Dolla won, Bald describes the case as an anomaly, an argument that the U.S. government soon came to vigorously oppose when other South Asians presented it. Perhaps even more interestingly, Bald’s research shows that Dolla had gotten two Black men to testify for his good character, though he claimed that they were merely people he conducted business with. Most likely, Bald reveals, Dolla lived in a Black neighborhood, and had managed to win citizenship through the use of his silver tongue.

In the minds of Americans, they were not neatly classified into the stark color lines enforced by Jim Crow laws.

With the Great Migration, many Black Bengali families that had settled in the South moved to cities in the North. Nazaf Ali, a Bengali man, and his Black wife Juanita Lambert Ali, moved from New Orleans to Chicago in 1918. In Chicago, Najaf found work alongside Black men in the city’s stockyards, where so much meat was produced that the city became known as the “Hog Butcher to the World.”

Bald makes clear that these men did not come to America with grand ambitions, like our modern myth of the diligent immigrant. They likely came with the aim of disappearing. There was no way that they could be both seen and exist. Yet, if we trace their ancestries, many of their stories lived on.

Margaret and Bahadour, the Black-Bengali children of Moksad and Ella Ali, moved north with four siblings to New York City and registered as “colored.” Bahadour listed himself as an “actor,” and changed his name to Bardu in the 1920s. That was the start of Bardu Ali, a man who would become pivotal in shaping the Black entertainment scene in America.

The Baltimore African-American profiled him as a dancer on the Black vaudeville circuit in 1926, describing him as the son of a “Turkish” father and “Creole” mother. By the 1930s, Bardu had made a name for himself as a popular emcee with a smooth style. Next up was his own nightclub, when Bardu moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s, teaming up with Johnny Otis, a white drummer big on the R&B scene, to open Barrelhouse, a nightclub devoted to R&B. Before he died, he made his foray into television, as the business manager of high-flying standup comedian Redd Foxx in the 1970s, who acted in hit series Sanford and Sons. 

White people would not have accepted these men. Their success and happiness relied on Black people.

Not all were as prolific as Bardu Ali. Countless others disappeared into the ether. But because Bald’s stories are vague, we are free to imagine the lives of these men as rich and as full as we choose to. Last year, I met a Bengali American man who owned a pizza shop outside of Detroit. He told me how he’d heard about Bengali Harlem for the first time last year, and how it had helped him come across what faintly, and for the first time ever, felt like his history. His grandfather had sailed to America for work, disappearing for decades, returning to Bangladesh when the pizza shop owner was just a child. His grandfather was quiet about his experiences, but slowly unveiled stories of a vivid life of love, and friends, and commerce over the years. 

The first significant settlement of South Asians in America was Muslim, not the Hindu, upper caste, highly educated poster children America chooses to celebrate. They were not cherry-picked from their home countries for the purposes of their labor and placed in antagonistic positions in America. Instead, their journeys were much more like the undocumented immigrants who traverse borders today. 

When South Asian Americans celebrate what we consider to be our achievements in America, it’s important that we take the stories of the Bengali sailors as proof that these are due to new privileges granted to a select few. If our success was the result of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, the Bengali sailors might have had an easier time. 

White people would not have accepted these men. Their success and happiness relied on Black people. Years later, South Asians are yet to repay that debt and acknowledge those histories. That’s why it’s imperative that we, all of us South Asians, say that Black lives matter. By saying it, we acknowledge that our own lives matter too.

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