How Vivek Bald is Changing Academic History

Vivek Bald’s “Selling the East in the American South” in the book Asian Americans in Dixie, where he discusses the importance of how Bengali Muslims affected the history of immigration and the concurrent fields of study. Bald sees Bengali Muslims as answering the questions of, “Which groups were migrating to the United states; where they were headed upon arrival in the United States; if, when and where they were settling; and for what purpose” in new and different ways through an expanded methodology and scope of research.[1] The Bengali Muslims of the early twentieth century immigration is study, by Bald, on how Orientalism, living quarters, and globalization themes in the academic history conversation are changing the way we see international migration in general.

Bengali Muslims were a group that was very global in their movements for work and selling their goods. Bengali Muslims were world travelers and hat the scholarship now calls today a population in a globalization pattern. Bengali Muslims moved from a specific region in India near and north of Calcutta to New York City for the point of entry into the United States. Ships’ manifests were one way of new and an inventive way of expanding and using other methodologies from other social sciences in migration pattern that Bald uses. The ships’ manifests also provide evidence for Bald’s point that these Bengali Muslims did not stay in America, they often left from New Orleans to traveler cities in the Caribbean Sea. Bald focuses on Kingston, Jamaica and Colon, Panama but his evidence shows a wide diaspora of traveling merchants that often use the money they make in the Caribbean Sea to go make home to Calcutta.[2] Bald interest into Bengali Muslims travel plans is in the interest of the expansion and discussion in the field of history. Bengali Muslims did not follow prototypical immigration patterns of going from New York City to the Midwest and building a family but by traveling to tourist destinations both in and out of the US to make enough money to live in “Bengali, India.”[3] Bald’s research is pushing the academic fields to both follow in his methodology using manifest but also to think of these Bengali Muslims not as immigrants coming to America but as global travelers.

These global travelers are merchants that are both selling a product but also, they are selling an experience of the “Orient.” In New Orleans, the product by both Bengali Muslims and creole women was the selling of the “Oriental dancing girl” and the friendly and subservient Oriental man.[4] In a district of New Orleans called Storyville, many of the thematic performances in the brothels the town is known for are often an Oriental theme. This idea of selling the far east harem narrative was not only for Bengali Muslims but for the local creole women and in particular a famous dancer named Bertha Weinthal.[5] The brothels were dancing in stereotypical ways of the Orient and they would sell the experience that the tourist would want from a break from their normal Victorian sexual norms. The male merchants, on the other hand would also sell both the items of the Orient but the experience the people wanted, from that region. Bald can discusses this and show other historians how to talk about it, through his essay. Bald use of classical historical research items including news articles but also using items that include advertising posters, that are new to the field and Bald uses to see a closer and better consideration into specific areas of research.

This was so common that newspapers would discuss how the merchants would be giving an air of Oriental mysticism.[6] This also seemed to permeate into the Bengali Muslims living situations. Bengali Muslims often did not come in family whole but single men often to work only and then return though some decided to stay. Those who decided to stay had to find an already established family structure to become part because of the lack of Bengali Muslim women or families in the United States. Bald then ties in that many Bengali Muslims would live in African American neighborhoods, another population in America that had its own stereotypes in this period. Bald does not goes into why this was the cases, either an economic reason because most of blacks were low in the socio-economic status or because it sold the minority sense that the Bengali Muslims were making a living from.

Some male merchants ended up marrying African-American women and setting up lives in cities in the South that had year around tourist like New Orleans and Charleston. This is in one way that Bengali Muslims do fit the stereotypical mode of setting up families and building a new life. The two cultures seemed to work together that a classic historical view cannot see, and one must use an interdisciplinary view like Bald to see how they connect. Bald seems to connect the two cultures through how they had a symbiotic economic relationship. Bengali Muslims would rent rooms from or marry into local African-American communities and then sell their cloth goods to them to pay for their room and board. Bald can consider what many historians cannot but sociologist can and so Bald adapts sociological methods and evidence to bring this unseen topic into the light.

In the end, Vivek Bald’s essay is one talking about how immigration studies in history with the evidence from Bengali Muslims, pushes the move forward in following the lead of people like him and George Sanchez with a focus on new methodology like ship logs and new themes. The themes Bald focuses are on globalization, Orientalism, and a non-classical family structure. The merchants are in some cases are doing both, selling the Oriental goods in America and the Caribbean and then going back to live their lives in India. The merchants are traders in ‘Orientalism’ on a global market, living in ethnically diverse households, and adding connection to African-Americans not separating them, as many did in this time. Vivek Bald in the end is not discussing Bengali Muslims only but also where he and other academics like himself can converse and move the field of study in new and interesting ways. The new ways add insight to already researched topics but also the field can look at new topics and add to the growing insightful research going on today.

[1] Vivek Bald, “Selling the East in the American South,” in Asian Americans in Dixie, ed. Khyati Y. Joshi and Jigna Desai (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 34.

[2] Bald, 45.

[3] Bald, 46.

[4] Bald, 44.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bald,45