The Skin I’m In: Afro-Bengali Solidarity & Lost Histories of America

The Skin I’m In: Afro-Bengali Solidarity & Lost Histories of America
Naeem Mohaiemen reviews Vivek Bald’s “Bengali Harlem”

And yet these Asian immigrants inhabited a nether zone and confused the forces of segregation, which did not know how to classify “in-between” people. Bengali migrant’s skin tones were classified by every shade: “Mulatto” and “White” in a 1900 census; “dark,” “copper,” and “ruddy” in a 1910 passport application processing; “Black,” “Oriental,” “Turkish” or “Malaysian” during the draft registration of the first World War. This shape-shifting sometimes went both ways. Some African Americans began to pretend to be “Hindoo” and cross the lines of segregation. Thus, a black man named Joseph Downing played a spiritualist named “Joveddah de Rajah” in the 1900s. Another African American man, the Reverend Jesse Routte, traveled in the deep south without being accosted, because he had taken to wearing a velveteen robe and a turban. Activist Mary Church Terrell tells a similar story, in her book A Colored Woman in a White World, of an African American who travels with an exposition through Charleston as a “Hindu Fakir.”

Bengali Harlem and lost histories of South Asian America
by Vivek Bald
Harvard University Press, 2013

Naeem Mohaiemen reviews Vivek Bald’s “Bengali Harlem: Read full review at MARGINS/Asian American Writers Workshop


  1. It took an Indian non-Bengali to write the most fascinating (probably the first also) book on early Bengali Muslim immigrants in America. I read a description of the book in the CNN website before. But this review digs deep into some issues beyond storytelling. The book seemed utterly fascinating. This is a must read for the Bangladeshi diaspora. To those who are used to watch Bangladeshi TV after a hearty meal made from Bangladeshi grocery, the world inhabited by those adventurous countrymen 50 to 100 years ago must seem utterly alien.

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