So maybe Indians are kinda, sorta Black?

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Bonda girl in Orissa. Image by: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/Flickr/Otabi kitahachi (via HuffPo)


Well, at least some Indians are… a few weeks ago, I confessed up to thinking as a kid that Indians were Black. And a few of my Indian/Bangladeshi friends gave me e-props for it (what up?!). One of them, Wafi, passed on this HuffPo article by Rita Banerji from 2015 that goes into fascinating detail about how there is indeed a strong genetic link between Indians and Africa:


 Growing up in India, I never met or heard about Indians with African lineages. Then in 2005 I watched a dance performance by the Sidi Goma, a group of musicians from the African Indian community, the Siddi, and I was astonished and mesmerised. Since then I’ve discovered that India’s African roots are much older than the Siddis, and are not only evident in numerous other communities, but percolate through direct descent in the blood of at least 600 million Indians.


The Siddis


The Siddis who arrived in India, over a thousand years ago, between 700 and 900 AD, are perhaps the “youngest” African immigrant community here. They were brought on ships by Arab merchants who sold them as slaves to Indian rulers. Known to be powerful warriors, the Siddis were often used as soldiers and played important roles in the armies and in political warfare. One of the most famous Siddi military commanders, Malik Ambar, was revered as the “military guru,” of the Maratha kings. He was equally feared and detested by the Mughal emperor, Jahangir (Richard M. Eaton, 2005, A Social History of the Deccan). In fact, where most other Hindu kingdoms were overpowered by the Mughals, the Marathas remained indomitable partly due to the war tactics introduce by Malik Ambar. One of these was guerrilla warfare, often used in Africa, but unknown to traditional Indian battles, which, as depicted in the epic Mahabharata, involved armies confronting head-on on an open battlefield. Soldiers of the Nawab of Hyderabad’s elite African Cavalry Guards were held in high social esteem. Even later during the 1857 Indian mutiny against British rule, many of the soldiers who died fighting for the Nawab of Oudh were Siddi soldiers, including women (Llewellyn-Jones, 2011, “The Colonial response to African Slaves in British India”, African and Asian Studies 10(1):59-70).


Many Siddis either bought their freedom, or escaped to the forests to form independent communities. They would eke a livelihood by performing as street musicians, animal entertainers or as mystical seers. In Bombay, many of the Siddis were Sufis and were honoured by all communities as spiritual healers. Other Siddis fought and usurped the thrones from rulers, as in Bengal, while still others established their own kingdoms. Among these kingdom provinces were Janjira and Jaffrabad established around 12 AD. Khadki, later to be Aurangabad, was founded by Malik Ambar. Janjira which was a well fortressed, meticulously planned and constructed, self-contained, island kingdom under successive Siddi kings, lasted 300 years as it successfully warded off frequent attacks. After India’s independence from the British, in 1948, it voluntarily seceded to the Indian Union (Great Britain India Office, The Imperial Gazetteer of India, 1908).


There are only about 55,000 Siddis in India today. They live in small, insular communities in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Gujarat. Unfortunately, in the span of a thousand years in India, the Siddis lost track of their origins, histories and cultures. One of the young Siddi musicians at the concert I attended talked about how as children they’d be subject to racist jibes of “Habshi”, or told to go back to Africa. Once, their troupe was held up by airport officials in India who assumed they were illegal African immigrants. He said the odd thing was that like most Siddis he had never even heard of Africa. Their food, clothes, and language are completely adapted to the local cultures of whichever part of India a particular Siddi community lives in.


Yet, traces of the Siddis’ African roots still echo in their dance and music traditions. They are evident in the animal representations in the dance movements and the painted face masks. The malunga), a tall, one-stringed bow, like the Brazilian berimbau), is an African musical instrument. There are Swahili words in their songs that the Siddis have long forgotten the meanings of. “Goma” for example is a derivative of the Kiswahili word “ngoma” for drums and also refers to dance forms, such as the ones Sidi Goma performs (where drums play a major part). The polyrhythms in Siddi music and the call-and-response style of singing are also characteristic of the Ngoma music of the east African Bantus. Interestingly, recent genetic analysis of the Siddis (Narang et al 2011; Shah et al 2011), identify Y-DNA markers that establish that the Siddis’ ancestors were probably Bantu and from other Sub-Saharan tribes.


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Sidi Goma/Photo by Lois Greenfield (Image Source


Going back thousands of years, Banjeri delves into the Hindu religion, and the Vedas, to show how some of the migrant sub-Caucasoid Vedic people described the indigenous inhabitants of India:

The Vedics were warring, cattle-herding nomads, and referred to the urban dwellings of the indigenous people as “Krishna garbha”–the womb of the black people – who they described as “flat-nosed” and “bull-lipped” (A. Eraly, 2002, Gem in the Lotus). They frequently attacked the indigenous settlements with a desire to “burn,” “crush” and “bury” their enemies, who they equated with the “night,” “demons” and “evil” (Rig Veda 7.104, 10.97). The caste system imposed by the Vedics reflected their race and colour prejudices, and likely ensued in response to inter-breeding through marriage or rape. ( Jaiminiya Brahamana I.161-63 hymn is a clear reference to the rape and murder of the indigenous goddess “long tongue” or Kali, by the Vedic gods Indra and Sumitra.) The word for caste ‘Varna,’ means “colour,” and plainly refers to the race-based colour coding for the caste hierarchy, in which whites were designated as Brahmins, the highest caste, browns (called “red” in Sanskrit) to the second highest caste of nobles and warriors, yellows or the oriental race (of which too there were indigenous tribes) to the merchant caste, and blacks were designated to the lowest or the slaves’ caste.


Though the Vedic religion is often regarded as the foundation of Hinduism, the overwhelming body of mainstream Hinduism today consists of the beliefs and customs of the indigenous people. The Vedic religion was non-iconoclastic and its rituals were exclusive and centred on set hymns, memorised and chanted only by priests. The indigenous people were animistic, had iconic representations for their gods and goddesses and also revered nature in different forms. Indeed, even though the Vedics scorned the idol-worshipping practices of the indigenous people, idol worship, as well as the worship of diverse deities in trees and animal forms like the elephant, monkey, tiger, snake, etc. underlies present-day Hinduism. The Lingam (penis) and Yoni (vagina) icons that have a prominent place in the Hindu worship today, also originated in the indigenous cults, as Indus artefacts indicate. Similarly, the goddess worshipping Shakta traditions in Hinduism evolved from older prehistoric female fertility cults that the earliest settlers most likely brought over from Africa. Furthermore, the religious celebrations and festivals of the indigenous peoples involved the use of song, dance and story-telling, which again is a distinguishing feature of modern Hinduism. The major Hindu festivals in India today, including Durga and Kali Puja, Janmashtami, and the popular festival of colours – Holi, are from the indigenous traditions. Most interestingly, most of the principal gods of the contemporary Hindu pantheon today are not the Vedic gods, but the dark-skinned gods and goddesses of the indigenous people that the Vedic texts once regarded with trepidation as “evil,” “destructive” or “belligerent.” These include Shiva,Vishnu, Krishna and Kali. [Details and references for the interaction of the indigenous and the Vedics cultures are in my book Sex and Power: Defining History, Shaping Societies, Penguin Global, 2009, pages 26-65, 111-178]


When you get a chance, read the article in its entirety, it’s really thought provoking. Now, from India’s forgotten Black roots to the United States forgotten Indian immigrant history… which became intertwined with that of Black America. I picked up a copy of  “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America” by Vivek Bald. Here’s a few excerpts to wet your whistle:

IN MARCH OF 1945, two men from India led testimony before the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the U.S. Congress. One was a Muslim who had settled in Arizona’s Salt River Valley in the 1910s, where a handful of farmers from the subcontinent had turned hundreds of acres of land toward the production of rice. The other was a Punjabi Sikh entrepreneur who came to New York City in 1926 and established a business supplying luxury Eastern imports to the city’s elites. Both men were lobbying Congress to make East Indians eligible for U.S. citizenship. Their task was not an easy one. In the early years of the twentieth century, Indian immigrants had been vilified. When hundreds of Punjabi workers began to arrive in California and the Pacific Northwest around 1904, they found white citizens’ groups and labor unions already lined up against them, emboldened by years of targeting immigrants from China and Japan. The nativists focused their vitriol on the Indian newcomers, whipping up a moral panic over what they called the “tide of turbans” that threatened to swamp white America. At times, the xenophobia boiled over into violence; in September 1907, a mob of white lumber-mill workers rampaged through the northwestern town of Bellingham, Washington, attacking Indian migrants indiscriminately, rounding them up and forcing them from their jobs and homes.  By 1917, the federal government had passed legislation barring Indians and virtually all other Asians from entering the United States. The 1917 Immigration Act made East Indians equivalent in the eyes of the law to alcoholics, “professional beggars,” and the insane; all were undesirable aliens, to be turned away at the borders.


In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court added a further layer to the exclusion regime by ruling that those East Indians who were already resident in the United States were racially ineligible to become U.S. citizens.

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Cover Photo of “Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America”


Decades before that Congressional hearing, thousands of East Indians had already arrived on our shores, made businesses, relationships, marriages and families. Bald traces some of their roots to enterprising Bengal Indians who began traveling to NYC, the Jersey Shore, and New Orleans in the late 1800’s to sell fine, handmade cloth that were made by women in their home villages. England’s colonization of India and importation of factory made fabrics decimated India’s own market, resulting in some men sailing the high seas to sell the wares abroad. They traveled in small groups of maybe 2-12, and sailed from England to various ports up and down the Eastern seaboard. Since many wealthy New Yorkers summered in New Jersey at places like Asbury Park and Atlantic City, the Indian merchants would head there, too, taking advantage of the Victorian Era craze for all things “Oriental” and “Asiatic”. (Sidebar: I get a kick out of these defunct old tyme terms. I’m not quite sure why, either.) Anyway, back to the book:

 Over time, hundreds of Indian seamen cycled through the networks that their co-workers and kin had first set up in the 1910s, and most eventually returned to the maritime trade and the subcontinent. But some stayed in the United States for good… Denied official belonging, they became part of another nation, a nation beneath the nation, in working-class neighborhoods of color from New York to Baltimore to Detroit. The greatest number appear to have settled in Harlem. Many married local women here, had children, and even as they maintained ties to one another, developed Puerto Rican, African American, and West Indian extended families and friends. Some opened restaurants or started small businesses, and as they settled, they became a quiet but integral part of the daily life of their adopted neighborhood.

These immigrants occupied a strange place in the heavily racially divided culture of the U.S. Not White, not Black, definitively foreign.

As dark-skinned men from “the East,” the peddlers occupied a slightly different position, but one that was inconsistent and unpredictable; while their place within the country’s black-white racial imagination was not quite fixed, and to a degree was even manipulable, their place on the streets and within the residential neighborhoods of segregated cities was much clearer. So, as they accessed white consumers with fantasies of India, their pathway into and across the United States was a pathway through working-class black neighborhoods; they established outposts in these places and then moved outward to sell their goods.

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Bengalis and their Puerto Rican and African-American wives at a 1952 banquet at New York’s Pakistan League of America. (Image and Caption: CNN)


Back in 2013, Moni Basu, writing at CNN, covered the release of the book, an interview with Bald, and a descendant of one of the Indian immigrants.

In the next few weeks, Fatima Shaik, an African-American, Christian woman, will travel “home” from New York to Kolkata, India.


It will be a journey steeped in a history that has remained unknown until the publication last month of a revelatory book by Vivek Bald. And it will be a journey of contemplation as Shaik, 60, meets for the first time ancestors with whom she has little in common.


“I want to go back because I want to find some sort of closure for my family, said Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience.


That Americans like Shaik, who identify as black, are linked by blood to a people on the Indian subcontinent seems, at first, improbable.

South Asian immigration boomed in this country after the passage of landmark immigration legislation in 1965. But long before that, there were smaller waves of new Americans who hailed from India under the British Empire.


The first group, to which Shaik’s grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, belonged, consisted of peddlers who came to these shores in the 1890s, according to Bald. They sold embroidered silks and cottons and other “exotic” wares from the East on the boardwalks of Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey. They eventually made their way south to cities like New Orleans and Atlanta and even farther to Central America.


The second wave came in the 1920s and ‘30s. They were seamen, some merchant marines.

Most were Muslim men from what was then the Indian province of Bengal and in many ways, they were the opposite of the stereotype of today’s well-heeled, highly educated South Asians.


South Asian immigration was illegal then – the 1917 Immigration Act barred all idiots, imbeciles, criminals and people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.”


The Bengalis got off ships with little to their name.


They were mostly illiterate and worked as cooks, dishwashers, merchants, subway laborers. In New York, they gradually formed a small community of sorts in Spanish Harlem. They occupied apartments and tenement housing on streets in the 100s. They worked hard.


And they did all they could do to become American in a nation of segregation and prejudice.

A huge part of that meant marrying Latino and African-American women – there were no Bengali women around – and letting go of the world they left behind.


Unlike other immigrants of the time, they didn’t settle in their own enclaves. Rather, they began life anew in established neighborhoods of color: Harlem, West Baltimore and in New Orleans, Treme.


By doing so, they also became a part of black and Latino heritage in America.

One of the most important things I took from the research is the fact that in the years of Asian exclusion, African-American and Puerto Rican communities actually gave (the Bengali men) the possibilities and the shelter to rebuild their lives,” said Bald, a documentarian who teaches writing and digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


“Those communities lived up to the promise of the nation when the nation failed to do so … because they were equally marginalized and equally deprived of full membership.”

Read the whole story here. I especially like how one descendants refers to himself as a “Banglarican”. Bald is currently working on a documentary on this. The trailer is here.

I also found this video featuring Bald lecturing at The South Asia Institute Institute at Harvard. It’s called “Harlem, Black Bottom, Tremé: South Asian Muslims in U.S. Communities of Color, 1890-1965”.

Before I move on, some clarification: the book begins with the stories of Indian immigrants in the late 1800s. At that time, there was only India. In 1947, the Partition of India occured, carving out Pakistan and East Pakistan, leading to the displacement of millions, many deaths and chaos. In 1971, after a bloody and brutal war, East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. Many of the immigrants came from what is now Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Finally, here’s a list from XXL of fifteen rap songs influenced by Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian music. Now before you interject, “The Middle East is NOT Southeast Asia!”, calm down, I’m aware. I’m including the link here because it touches on the melding of the historically Black American musical genre with sounds that were birthed in Southeast Asia in a number of the listed songs. And I’ll close with one of my favs, “Beware” by Panjabi MC with Brooklyn’s own Jay Z. Many thanks to my friend Wafi who sent me the link at the top of the post that got my brain churning enough to read up on this and write the post. 


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