Review of Vivek Bald’s “Selling the East in the American South”

Transnationalism, mobility, and ethnicity are the dominating themes in Vivek Bald’s “Selling the East in the American South”. He questions the erasure of Bengali Muslims and other ethnically Asian communities from American history’s narrative and he is not the only historian to voice his concerns. However, his concerns do go against the grain of some popular scholars’ frameworks to approaching immigration history. Bald is one of the scholars proposing a shift in the field.

Matthew Frye Jacobson explained why the shift from nationalism to transnationalism was vital, immigrants did not assimilate to the Anglo-American trope 1. Transnationalism incorporates more than the people and goods moving to and from a country, but it also entails an untold narrative of immigration in which history moves from the bottom up 2. The migratory patterns of the Bengali Muslims not only went against traditional patterns immigrants followed, but they also came and went from the United States’ border. A large portion of their migration was for economic gain as seen with their migration back home or out of the United States to the Caribbean and Latin America for more product in cold months 3.

In terms of mobility, Bald discusses the issues of citizenship and other legislation that created hurdles for non-European white immigrants to become citizens and receive equal rights and social standing 4. He discusses that Bengali Muslims perpetuation of Orientalism- the problematic blanket term to cover all Asian cultures, objects, and customs, via the commodification of their own culture 5. However, it was not meant to blame their plight but used to address the untold history of sojourning labor in America that was significant to this ethnic group. Other scholars have addressed and shared his opinion on the need for a complete history that incorporates the motivations for their relocation, expectations, and every race, gender, culture, and group. George J. Sanchez discusses scholarly expansion and foreignness, as well as, legislation that prevented mobility 6. Then, Goodman proposed three types of mobility; free, forced, and coerced 7. Some respected scholars, such as Vecoli, critique these breakdowns as discrediting the study because they believed in assimilation and migrants having a shared experience 8.

Ethnicity is a key factor in debunking the opinions of Vecoli and the schools that support their “Melting Pot” theory. Bald and other scholars suggest a diversification of the field by including the history of the immigrants’ countries of origins to understand customs, values, and skills 9. This desire to expand on the lacking resources on Bengali Muslims as well as acknowledging their global networks is, to Bald, a key to fixing the state of the immigration history field, as well as their own national histories 10. In fact, Matthew Frye Jacobson does a better job at addressing the need for reforming the perceptions of ethnicity in Hyphen Nation by further delving into the problematic establishment of skin privilege 11.

Ultimately, while Vivek Bald’s essay is effective in motivating the reader to consider accepting a change in the field to move toward diversification, it left more questions than answers. “Selling the East in the American South” pushes for the decentralization of America as the go-to for immigrants and an end to bi-national migration, at least for some different ethnic groups. While the motives of Bengali Muslims were greatly financial, this essay pointed out that just because a group of migrants is different does not mean that they did not shape the American identity. The South Asians’ mobility is a narrative unheard of in today’s public school system where the myth that citizenship is not only a goal for all immigrants but something open and accessible to everyone. Bald could have further expressed that the issue remains unresolved, if not worsened in a post-9/11 society. Diversifying the narrative of immigration to include more ethnic groups was Bald’s strongest argument, tying into both transnationalism and mobility, to address South Asian erasure from American Immigration History despite their vital contribution of the identity of “orientalism”. This piece is a gateway to understanding problems in the field when entire ethnic groups are missing from a narrative of a country’s history.

  1. Matthew Frye Jacobson, “More ‘Trans-,’ Less ‘National,’” Journal of American Ethnic History 25, no. 4 (Summer 2006): 83.
  2. Erika Lee, “A Part and Apart: Asian American and Immigration History,” Journal of American Ethnic History 34, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 31.
  3. Vivek Bald, “Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920,” in Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South, ed. Khyati Y. Joshi and Jigna Desai. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 45-46.
  4. Bald, 39-40.
  5. Bald, 37-41.
  6. George J. Sanchez, “Race, Nation, and Culture in Recent Immigration Studies,” Journal of American Ethnic History 18, no. 4 (Summer 1999): 79-82.
  7. Adam Goodman, “Nation of Migrants, Historians of Migration,” Journal of American Ethnic History 34, no. 4 (Summer 2015): 10.
  8. Lee, 35-36.
  9. Bald, 46-49.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Matthew Frye Jacobson, Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 22.