Black and Bengali


Fatima Shaik in In These Times:

The federal census taker comes every 10 years and, for most people in the United States, this has little consequence. But not where I lived, in New Orleans, just outside the historic district of Tremé. There, people talked to each other about whether to lie to the census taker and which lie to tell, and that conversation produced stories about who had disappeared from us and who had stayed, and what was more important: loyalty or money.

That was the mentality in Creole New Orleans from as far back as I can remember—that is, the 1950s—until recently. The lying, the disappearing, the money and lack of it had everything to do with race.

We were part of a mixed-race community of immigrants and Louisiana natives, and there was no place for us in the data tables of the census or in the mind of a black-and-white America. And yet we existed, for generations. Now, in a thoroughly researched new book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Vivek Bald traces one vein of our lineage, from a most distant country.

Bald follows Muslim peddlers and, later, ship workers who journeyed from India to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. As local Indian markets for fabrics lost value in the 1880s, Muslim Bengali men began traveling abroad to find customers for “Oriental” wares—silk and cotton, handkerchiefs, bedspreads and tablecloths, and rugs. They found an eager appetite in the United States, where styles from the East were becoming fashionable, furnishing sitting rooms across the nation, from the homes of Northern socialites to New Orleans’ bordellos. Later, in the northeastern United States, Bengali mechanics arrived, often by jumping ship to escape the terrible working conditions in the furnace rooms of British steamers.

All of these men, too dark and foreign to be accepted in the white parts of town, entered segregated communities of color in New York, such as the Harlem of the book’s title, but also Detroit, New Orleans and, later, other large industrial U.S. cities. My grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, a Bengali peddler who arrived in Tremé in 1896, was one of them.