- New Cosmopolitanisms of Forgotten Diasporas
In a Georgia courtroom in 1909, Calcutta-born Abba Dolla pulled up his sleeve to show the underside of his forearm to the judge. Although the judge noted that Dolla was "dark," the skin on his forearms "was sufficiently transparent for the blue color of the veins to show very clearly." This allowed Dolla to prove "Caucasian" status and, consequently, gain US citizenship. Dolla had purchased a lot in a "whites only" cemetery, which strengthened his application for citizenship. But Dolla lived in a black neighborhood in Savannah and had suggested two black friends as character witnesses. Dolla's ability to navigate the arbitrary racial politics of the US court system runs parallel to his ability to navigate networks of support in Savannah's black neighborhoods as well as global networks of trade that stretched from Georgia to Bengal. Like Dolla, South Asian laborers and thinkers in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century left few traces of their lives, but they participated quite centrally in networks that stretched across the United States and the world.
Three notable recent books chart this early diaspora: Vivek Bald's Bengali Harlem, Nayan Shah's Stranger Intimacy, and Nico Slate's Colored Cosmopolitanism. Bald focuses on Bengali Muslims in black neighborhoods in New York, New Orleans, and Detroit; Shah tracks the relationships that develop between [End Page 425] Punjabi migrant labor, poor white labor, and indigenous labor forces on the North American west coast; and Slate illuminates a shared struggle between black American and Indian anticolonial thinkers across the twentieth century. Though the three writers approach the period via different archival materials, all three reveal a history of a shared and global struggle against racial, imperial, sexual, and class injustice.
These new histories of early South Asian migration and circulation give a thick description of itinerant lives in the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. On three different scales—from the intimate to the global—these histories trace communities' attempts to support one another beyond or underneath the American and British Empires, and sketch alternative ethical and political projects enacted by those who have been neglected by the nation. The three texts under consideration advance the transnational turn that Janice Radway, in her presidential address at the 1998 American Studies Association meeting,1 noted as the most significant development in the field's recent history. These works join, on the one hand, the critiques of national homogeneity made under the rubrics of identity politics and, on the other, the critiques of US homogeneity highlighted by the nation's twentieth-century imperial practices. Such critiques make it difficult, Radway argued, to imagine a field of American studies that was loyal to any single imagined community. The figures under analysis in Slate, Shah, and Bald were active members in multiple affective communities, some of which stretch around the globe and some of which are within arm's reach.
If these three texts challenge our assumptions about the homogeneity of migrant identity and neighborhoods of color, they should also challenge our assumptions about the conformity of experiences of transnationalism. Refuting simple celebrations of transnationalism (as well as daft critiques of globalization), these books focus instead on the discordant and inconsonant effects of global migration, dialogue, and travel. Transnationalism's twentieth-century history emerges as a complicated relationship of people not across states but within the fissures of borders.
Slate's Colored Cosmopolitanism constructs a long history of activism beneath the color line, and catalogs the black Americans writing about, corresponding with, and acting with Indians from the turn of the century to the 1960s. "Colored cosmopolitanism," in Slate's...