For the children of Bengali–Puerto Rican and Bengali–African American marriages [in the 1930s], such experiences were part of daily life. This generation grew up shifting among a multiplicity of different cultural and religious practices, worldviews, languages, relations, and relationships within the context of their immediate and extended families, their schools, their neighborhoods, and the larger city of New York.
Noor Chowdry describes a childhood spent moving among a series of multiracial homes. In his first few years, he lived with his mother and maternal grandmother in East Harlem, speaking only Spanish until the age of six. Later he lived with his Bengali uncle, African American aunt, and his aunt’s son, Hassan, in Belleville, New Jersey… Noor would also spend time with his father’s friend Abdul, who had married and settled in another African American community in New Jersey and had a son Noor’s age…
Noor’s descriptions of family events give us a sense of the larger multiracial community that had formed among and around groups of Bengali migrants by the 1950s. On holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, his father, Ibrahim, would pick up Noor and his sister, Laily, in his car; then they would pick up Ibrahim’s younger brother, Masud, and his wife, Barbara, from West Harlem, then Ibrahim and Masud’s close friend Habib Ullah and his family from East Harlem.
Then they would all drive out to the house of Ibrahim and Masud’s cousin Idris Choudhury and his wife, Annie, in an African American section of the suburb of Montclair, New Jersey. Among the South Asian men in this group, two had married Puerto Rican women, two had married African American women, and one had married a young working-class British woman during a two-year stay in London in the 1940s.
So when all the women and men gathered in Montclair on the holidays, they brought together a group of more than a dozen American-born cousins who were Bengali and Puerto Rican, Bengali and African American, Bengali and white, who grew up together as kin—hearing and speaking multiple languages, eating multiple kinds of home food, navigating multiple and shifting racial, ethnic, and cultural identifications—all as part of a single circle of extended family and friends.
- Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (2013)