One may hardly diminish the cultural, economic, and political impacts of immigration in the history of the USA as the newcomers largely contributed to the ethnic diversity of the American society. The Indian settlements represent a particularly curious case for the historical analysis. In his book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, Vivek Bald strongly argues that the Bengali immigration has the unique features while admiring their determination and ability for adaptation to harsh conditions.
The author primarily explains that the Bengali communities set an example of the distinguished ethnic formations. Most of theIndian immigrants had to abandon the inland rural areas of India because of the burden of the new taxes along with the frequent droughts and famines (Bald, 2013, p. 101). Secondly, they were extremely productive in organizing the networks between the major industrial cities of the state. During the First World War, the Indian ex-lascars managed to expand this organization from New York to Baltimore and later to Detroit (Bald, 2013, p. 7). Finally, the Bengali immigrants successfully assimilated into the numerous communities, including the Puerto Rican and African American minorities, without the formation of the separate claves. According to Bald, they were highly mobile during the search of better working conditions and decent salary (Patel, 2013). Therefore, the immigrants did not stay in one place long enough to form a community (Patel, 2013). They lived in small groups that included the experienced peddlers as well as the young generation that began the process of acquiring the professional skills (Bald, 2013, p. 32). The resemblance of the networks to the family formation appears to be one of the distinguishing features of the Bengali communities.
Meanwhile, the analysis of the historical accounts allowed the author to identify the main reasons for the long-term process of the Asian immigration. They include the growth of the British Empire, the world trade, and, ultimately, the lack of economic independence in the homeland (Bald, 2013, p. 97). In the early nineteenth century, the British colonizers essentially destroyed the Indian economy by undermining the national textile industry (Bald, 2013, p. 97). At the same time, the majority of Indians came from the rural areas in order to escape the troublesome burden of taxation (Bald, 2013, p. 97). Evidently, the indigenous population had to leave their homeland and search for more favorable environment to achieve the economic prosperity.
The book vividly illustrates the domination of the racist attitudes towards the Asian immigrants since the late nineteenth century. It is rather evident in the contemporary state statutes. In 1915, the adoption of the Seamen’s Act significantly complicated the process of entering the USA for Indians as it imposed a new requirement of language proficiency (Bald, 2013, p. 112). Apparently, the legislature aimed to prohibit the entrance of foreign seamen into the American state and chances of employment on the U.S. ships. The 1917 Immigration Act was particularly a contributory factor in enforcement of criminalization against the Asian minorities by essentially prohibiting the access of new immigrants to the USA. It initiated the establishment of an effective and far-reaching system of detecting and tracking foreign seamen by the U.S. border police (Bald, 2013, p. 112). Similarly, the Anglo-Americans that came to the USA at the beginning of the nineteenth century successfully established their political dominance in the South while effectively excluding the racial minorities from power (Bald, 2013, p. 56). Later, the newly enacted state legislations, commonly known as Jim Crow laws, stimulated the painful process of segregation (Bald, 2013, p. 56).
The local population maintained the similarly unfriendly attitudes to the Bengali. For instance, Kipling openly expressed his views on the racial superiority of white men. According to the famous novelist, the never-ending commotion on the streets of New Orleans provided the insight into the peculiar intermixture of the multinational communities, including the Hindus, Burmese, Danes, Malays, Welshmen, Germans, etc. (Bald, 2013, p. 30). In a rather ironic manner, Kipling described the representatives of other nations who “insist upon marrying local women, grow jealous and run amok” (Bald, 2013, p. 30). The process of racial segregation lasted until the First World War. By 1930s, the inhabitants of the racial neighborhoods, including Treme in New Orleans, moved to the socially isolated districts that experienced the unprecedented increase of social injustice (Bald, 2013, p. 57). Evidently, the newcomers were considered an economic and social threat to the American population since they came to find higher living standards and a place for the permanent settlement.
The Bengali communities had the surprising ability to adapt to the changeable conditions. The representatives of this ethnic group had a sense of discipline and responsibility. In Bald’s (2013) words, the Bengali responded to the state-sponsored restrictions on immigration with the rapid optimization of resources and the establishment of the effective channels for the free movement of people, goods, and information across the U. S. borders (p. 41). The national attributes of clothing and excellent manners provided the Bengali peddlers with the sufficient level of safety against prejudices and the labor mobility. This manner of performance and notable red Muslim hats allowed them to move around the metropolitan area, including New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi to New Orleans and avoid the outbursts of racial discrimination (Bald, 2013, p. 52).
Bald clearly praises the Bengali’s determination. As for the whole community, the Indian immigrants suffered severe abuse while working in the U.S. factories despite the rapid development of the American economy during the war years. The Indian seamen had to face great disappointment as the promise of the better working conditions in the USA was merely an illusion (Bald, 2013, p. 115). They worked long shifts for 30 cents per hour under the strict supervision of the local militia, secret service, and law enforcement (Bald, 2013, p. 116). After the adoption of the 1917 Immigration Act, the Indian immigrants who have settled in the USA during the war became the important links in the nationwide networks of the Bengali peddlers. The groups of the former lascars in New Philadelphia and Baltimore as well as in the major manufacture towns helped to provide the places for dwelling and job opportunities for the newcomers (Bald, 2013, p. 118). Accordingly, aspirations to find a decent job and remain under the radar of the anti—immigration service drove the Indian peddlers in different directions, including Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Texas in the south as well as in the west and south from the Atlantic Ocean (Bald, 2013, p. 118). Evidently, the Bengali immigrants faced partial, if not complete, deprivation of the social benefits during the war years only to succeed at building the undercover networks that strongly resembled the family formation.
In conclusion, the book clearly states that the Indian immigration to the USA continues to stir the academic interest due to the several reasons. Since the former Bengali seamen were highly mobile during their business trips across the country, they preferred assimilation within other racial minorities to the establishment of the typical ethnic centers. At the same time, the Indian settlers showed the stunning determination and striving for economic independence while establishing the surprisingly effective networks for the non-stop movement of goods, people, and information across the state. Surely, the book is highly recommendable for the general audience as well as the members of the academic community.