Selling the East in the American South

“Selling the East in the American South: Bengali Muslim Peddlers in New Orleans and Beyond, 1880-1920” by Vivek Bald begins by broadly describing the past focus of scholarship on South Asian immigration to the US- the vast majority of which has focused on immigration post-1965. The focus of his project, however, is on Bengali immigrants who migrated from India to New York in the 1880s and from thence into the American South and into Central America and the Caribbean. He notes that during this time there was an American fascination for India and “”Oriental” goods and entertainments” of which Indian migrants took advantage. He also goes on to state that most Indian migrants did not permanently reside in these southern regions, and those that did mostly integrated into African-American working class communities.
The 19th and early 20th Centuries are described by Bald as being times of “commercial orientalism” during which “exotic” Asian products were fashionable among American elites. This mostly began with an obsession with China, but during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries India and the Middle East became increasingly important. Profiting from this, Bengali peddlers were able to market “embroidered cotton, silk kerchiefs and tablecloths, small rugs, wall hangings.” As Bald puts it, they were “selling the exotic.” This interest in eastern products was tied to orientalist fashions generally, such as the great interest in Fitzgerald’s translation of “The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam.”
These Indian peddlers settled throughout the South, Charleston and Savannah being significant destinations, but the main location was New Orleans. This was because New Orleans was quickly rising during this time as a major center of travel and tourism.

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