Reading Response

Selling the ‘East’ in the South

The years after the 1965 Hart-Cellar Immigration Act sought to remedy what happened because of the immigration act. The 1965 Act brought in mostly skilled workers like engineers, doctors, and other middle class work from Asia. Prior to this the migration of South Asians in America were Bengali Muslim peddlers during the late 1800s on the East Coast and Punjabi migration who settled and participated in activism on the West Coast between 1904 and 1924. The Bengali Muslim men who migrated from India starting in 1880s did not stay in New York where they landed but travelled to New Jersey and then down south and into the African American communities in places like Charleston and New Orleans.

Bengali Muslim peddlers were popular, and usually unbothered even during immigration bands, because of what they were selling. During this time the idea and fantasies of ‘the East’ were popular for the elite class. These ‘Oriental goods’ included embroidered cotton, sild kerchiefs and tablecloths, small rugs and wall hangings. For the white, elite buyers of these products they were a sign of status. Before the Bengali peddlers, there was an interest in Chinese products but there were different levels or versions of available ‘Orientalism’ for sale depending on the class of who was buying ranging from, patrician, commercial, and political. ‘Commercial Orientalism’ was marked for the working class who wanted to imitate the pleasures of the upper class while ‘political orientalism’ is the work and labor put into the products that changed from awe and admiration to fear and loathing of the Chinese workers and products. The popularity of Indian products was because of the animosity for the Chinese migrants following the nineteenth century but people, white Americans, still wanted the ‘exotic, far east’ products. The popularity and intrigue with ‘Orientalism’ translated to mainstream entertainment also in the forms of plays, musicals, and dance, company names, and even burlesque shows and brothels. The goods had different meanings for men and women. For white American men it was a way to portray white masculinity of imperialism and play into the fantasy of far off lands. Women liked the fabrics, jewelry, and decorations they could by because it showed off a cosmopolitan independence, and sexual liberation they wanted.

The locations and travel patterns of the Bengali peddlers was interesting because it followed specific patterns. The peddlers would first arrive in New York but would not stay there and would instead go the boardwalk towns in New Jersey for the summers to then travel down south to places like New Orleans, Charleston living in the African American communities and ‘red districts’ of the towns. The pattern here is that they are following the American vacationers who are more likely to buy their products. During the off seasons in when the men would either travel down south or return to India to stock up on more products or train younger peddler men to come to America. This could be one reason they were unbothered by immigration laws; they did not stay long and if they did it was not in the same sphere as white Americans. Following the Second World War, peddlers were more likely to settle down, marry an African American woman, or open up shops. Those who stayed also sought citizenship. At the time citizen ship was only given to ‘free white persons’ and ‘persons of African American descent’. Interestingly, but also makes complete sense, the men would claim to be a ‘free white persons’ probably because it was easier to gain citizenship as a white person than black and to be seen as African American brought black problems. While in New Orleans, the growing popularity of the city and its centralized positon in tourism and exports, made it a popular destination for Bengali peddlers. The success of the peddlers in New Orleans depending on how well they could play into the American white fantasy and ideas of India and the ‘exotic East’. From New Orleans they were able to head even further south into places like Belize, Cuba, Honduras, and Panama.

The differences in treatment from Punjabi migrations to Bengali Muslim peddlers was the level of involvement they each had. The Punjabi migrations were more active in the public realm and came to stay in America. While the Bengali Muslim peddlers were trailing back and forth between American and India in smaller numbers, less political, and filled a specific niche in the tourism economy on the East Coast.