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New Histories of the South Asian Diaspora
April 16 @ 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm
MIT-India & the Harvard South Asia Institute present the inaugural event of a new series, “South Asia and Its Diasporas”
Coolie Woman/Bengali Harlem: New Histories of the South Asian Diaspora
A Reading and Discussion with authors Gaiutra Bahadur & Vivek Bald
Moderated by Walter Johnson
In 1903, a young woman named Sujaria and a young man named Abdul Aziz left the port of Calcutta in separate ships, sailing westward. Sujaria was pregnant and alone; she and the others on her ship were indentured laborers, headed to sugar plantations in the British colony of Guiana. Abdul Aziz was a peddler of chikon embroidery from a village in Hooghly; he traveled with three other young men, all headed for the beach boardwalks of New Jersey, and ultimately, the neighborhood of Tremé in New Orleans, aiming to sell goods and send money home. What happened to Sujaria and Abdul? What kind of lives did they lead after emigrating from colonial India? And what other experiences, like theirs, have been “lost” in previous accounts of South Asia and its diasporas?
In this special joint reading and conversation, Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (2013, University of Chicago Press) and Vivek Bald, author of Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (2013, Harvard University Press) will present excerpts from their work and discuss their common experiences excavating and bringing to life the stories of previously unacknowledged South Asian migrants from the early 20th century. The conversation will be moderated by Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and author, most recently, of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2013).
Gaiutra Bahadur is a journalist, book critic, and recent Harvard Neiman Fellow whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, Ms., and the Nation, among other publications. In Coolie Woman, she embarks on a journey into the past to find the story of her great-grandmother, Sujaria. Traversing three continents and trawling through countless colonial archives, Bahadur excavates not only her great-grandmother’s story but also the repressed history of some quarter of a million other “coolie women”, shining a light on their complex lives. Coolie Woman is a meditation on survival, a gripping story of a double diaspora–from India to the West Indies in one century, Guyana to the United States in the next–that is at once a search for one’s roots and an exploration of gender and power, peril and opportunity.
Vivek Bald is a writer, scholar, filmmaker, and Associate Professor of Comparative Media Studies and Writing at MIT. In Bengali Harlem, he pieces together fragments of archival evidence to uncover the histories of two populations of South Asian Muslim migrants who lived, settled, and intermarried within African American and Puerto Rican communities from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. The first, a group of “Oriental goods” peddlers from West Bengal, established a peddling network in the 1890s, that spread throughout the Jim Crow South and into the Caribbean. The second consisted of hundreds of steamship workers who, beginning in the 1910s, escaped British ships in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore and established clandestine networks to access restaurant and factory jobs and build new lives in the shadows of anti-Asian immigration laws.
Walter Johnson is a distinguished historian whose work focuses on slavery, capitalism, and imperialism in the nineteenth century United States. His award-winning first book, Soul by Soul (1999) used the slave market as a way to think about the fantasies, fears, negotiations, and violence that characterized American slavery. His second book, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Imperialism in the Mississippi Valley (2013), embeds the history of slavery in the U.S. in the histories of global capitalism – the cotton trade and the Atlantic money market – and U.S. imperialism – the Louisiana Purchase, the illegal invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1850s, and the effort to reopen the Atlantic Slave trade on the eve of the Civil War.