Reflecting on “Selling the East in the American South”

Vivek Bald’s “Selling the East in the American South” focuses on Bengali Muslims and their experience immigrating to the United States. The overwhelming sentiment is that they, and other Asians and people from the Middle East, have been removed from the narrative of studies despite obvious involvement. First, Bald explains that the Punjabi arrived pre-Revolution and moved west to avoid taxation, the British casting them out of the colonies, and they settled in California for agriculture. Then, when the Bengalis arrived, they broke normal migration patterns. They remained mostly nomadic and commodified their culture and lifestyle.

While the Chinese experienced xenophobia and racial violence, Americans ate up the aspects of Middle Eastern lifestyles that the Bengali sojourning laborers offered them. Most interestingly was that men and women embraced different goods. Men were interested in hookah, masculinity and power, and weapons. Women’s interest was around fabric, jewelry, and interior decorating, along with independence, self-definition, and to liberate themselves sexually. Be they peddling chikan embroidery from their homeland of Calcutta in the popular coastal cities of New Jersey or moving shops in New Orleans to sell their fabrics to their African American clients, their culture saturated and influenced American culture and even expanded beyond into other places they traveled to after coming to America; the Caribbean, Cuba, Honduras, and Panama.

The Bengali immigrants were some of the first East Indians in the United States to naturalize. Previously, there were only two reasons, being a free white person or a person of African descent; however, they came to join their family. Despite being traveling workers and coming from many similar communities to America in small groups their traveling did seem to be done mostly alone. Equally as interesting, was how they influenced cities and society. New Orleans became a location of sex trafficking, year-round tourism, dancing and costumes. All of these had a large influence of their culture, particularly Burlesque and then Broadway accepting the Indian nautch style of dance. Bald explains that theater, literature, and music all fell into popular culture, despite the majority of settled Middle Eastern immigrants joining the African American community.

What I thought about as I read through this essay was how they, in a way, shaped the misperception of their homeland and culture to the majority of Americans. Certainly, now that I know their influence in American society, their stories need to be told to clarify the reality of their aspirations and their struggles and pleasures upon arriving. If letters could decipher such a thing for the Irish immigrant women surely the same can and should be done for the Bengali immigrants because it is unlikely that Muslims deep in their faith were that far separated from the Qur’an’s message- particularly in terms of sexual liberation. In the end this raised more questions for me than answers, as I am currently studying early Islamic civilization with immigration, but I can see the hope in the fields’ expansion opening room for a broader debate on what it means to be Muslim and/or Middle Eastern in America.

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