By Moni Basu, CNN (CNN) - In the next few weeks, Fatima Shaik, an African-American, Christian woman, will travel “home” from New York to Kolkata, India.
It will be a journey steeped in a history that has remained unknown until the publication last month of a revelatory book by Vivek Bald.
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Unlike other immigrants of the time, they didn’t settle in their own enclaves.
Rather, they began life anew in established neighborhoods of color: Harlem, West Baltimore and in New Orleans, Treme.
They raised their children near New Orleans’ Congo Square, where slaves once gathered. When she was little, in the 1950s and ‘60s, she rushed to the porch when phone books arrived with a thud. East Bengal became East Pakistan and later, in 1971, Bangladesh.
Ford took her children to church on Sundays while Musa knelt on a prayer rug and faced Mecca. Ford raised her children with African-American traditions; the ties to Bengal faded. But the sons of that land who came to America seeking a better life remained invisible. Last month, he published "Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.
“I just said, ‘wow,’” said Nurul Amin, 62, whose father once sold hotdogs from a Harlem pushcart. Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience, said she was finally learning her grandfather’s history.They sold embroidered silks and cottons and other “exotic” wares from the East on the boardwalks of Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Most were Muslim men from what was then the Indian province of Bengal and in many ways, they were the opposite of the stereotype of today’s well-heeled, highly educated South Asians.They eventually made their way south to cities like New Orleans and Atlanta and even farther to Central America. South Asian immigration was illegal then – the 1917 Immigration Act barred all idiots, imbeciles, criminals and people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” The Bengalis got off ships with little to their name.They occupied apartments and tenement housing on streets in the 100s. And they did all they could do to become American in a nation of segregation and prejudice.A huge part of that meant marrying Latino and African-American women – there were no Bengali women around - and letting go of the world they left behind.