Selling the East in the American South

Vivek Bald’s “Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920” from Asian Americans in Dixie is a chapter exploring what the author considers a vastly underrepresented topic in the history of South Asian migration. The issues he delves into intersect in several directions, but one of great interest which he prioritizes in his work is the relationship between commerce, racial issues with immigration, and western cultural trends. The main topic at play is the concept of Orientalism and how this western cultural phase created a commercial environment which allowed for migrants to challenge and avoid racial immigration laws for a time. In doing this he utilizes a variety of different underused sources, including ship records, changes analysis from an immigration to a migration model, and is interdisciplinary in his use of sociology. Bald’s argument is that Orientalist fantasies allowed for an otherwise largely unwanted group of immigrants to successfully make a living selling “eastern” goods, of varying authenticity, to Americans who had a fascination with the “Orient,” and that these transitory migrants reveal a more transnational story than that which previous dominant scholarship would suggest. 

Bald begins exploring this issue by this simple statement: “they were selling the exotic.” He refers to the ideas of John Kuo Wei Tchen, who argued that the early United States was characterized by “patrician Orientalism,” a fascination primarily among the nation’s wealthy elites and rising middle class for goods from the Far East. Bald explains that by the late 19th Century, the focus of this Orientalist issue began to shift more towards India and the Middle East. The “patrician” and “commercial” stages of Orientalism occurred at the same time in this instance according to Bald, which led to a broader cultural phenomenon paving the way for Bengali migrants seeking economic opportunities. Bald turns to the work of historian Kristin Hoganson, who explains the variety of meanings which “Oriental goods” conveyed to American men at this time, that they “became markers of an imperial white masculinity, their possession and display simultaneously conveying the conquest of far-off lands and conjuring the fantasy world of the Eastern harem.” At the same time, this fantasy does little to reflect the reality of life for Bengali peddler migrants, who, excluded from contemporary definitions of whiteness, took refuge in the African-American working class communities of the places where they temporarily settled.

Bald then turns to ship records and papers to track the Bengali peddler movement across the United States. After identifying their movement to New Orleans and the rest of the American South, he takes the time to revisit his argument about the Orientalist cultural phenomenon allowing for increased travel opportunities for Bengali migrants. He explains that New Orleans saw a shift in leadership away from its old French Creole elite and towards a cosmopolitan Anglo-American elite from the northeast who wanted to grow New Orleans as a “glittering modern commercial thoroughfare,” while also capitalizing on the myths and legends of the city’s old French Creole past. The myths and legends were expanded to incorporate Orientalism however, as Bald is quick to point out, with the Mardi Gras “krewes” at this time incorporating Orientalist themes. In addition to the goods they were selling, Bald brings up the fact that Bengali migrants often acted in such a way as to convey eastern authenticity in a way which would be appealing to western gentlemen.

The change in model from an immigration based one of permanent settlement from one place to another to a transitory migration and transnational model is important in Bald’s work, which he differentiates from that of previous scholarship which focuses mostly on the former type of migration. As he puts it “these migrants followed a different and unexpected path, one that diverged sharply from later, normative patterns of South Asian immigration to the United States. Most chose not to settle permanently.” Bald is interested in the role of these Bengali peddlers in his analysis of the “global network,” which “can account for a broader variety of migrant experiences.” This goes to the heart of his resistance to simplified narratives and focus of previous scholarship.

The focus of Bald’s work is on identifying the limitations of previous investigations of the field of South Asian immigration. By focusing almost solely on waves of immigration after the change in immigration laws in 1965, Bald argues that historians have missed a major part of South Asian migration history. He proves that South Asian migrants utilized a particular western cultural phenomenon in order to not only achieve some economic success, but also attain legal status in the United States despite the laws at the time. He sociologically analyses the incorporation of those who did permanently settle with African-American communities while also highlighting the fact that the nature of the migration did not usually result in permanent settlement.