The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem had an exhibit recently called "Africans In India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers." The exhibition, curated from a Smithsonian collection shares images and history of East Africans who attained military and political status all while being enslaved or shortly after attaining freedom. Many became generals, commanders, admirals, architects, prime ministers and rulers during bondage and used these social privileges to purchase their freedom and continue to lead in society.
Called the Sidis or Habshis or Abyssinians, they have been immortalized in scenic paintings and portraits that verify their presence, status and contributions. My mother and I stopped in to view the exhibit and were truly amazed at this slice of history that we did not have any clue about. We remarked that this information had not been taught in any of our World History classes (in high school or college), and I consider both of us to be pretty knowledgeable about Black History.
The exhibition presented the Nawabs of Janjira and Sachin, who were African slaves brought to India from Ethiopia, Somalia and other nearby areas. Their history is unlike any other because they were able to attain power, influence and authority despite their origins as slaves. In fact, they are the only case in history where slaves from East Africa went to another continent and achieved high positions in society, according to Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, a historian and curator at the Schomburg Center.
The Sidis and Habshis were able to assert themselves in Bengal (NE India), Gujarat (Western India) and Deccan (Central India).
Featured in the exhibition are the Sharqi Sultans of Jaunpur (1394-1479), the Habshi Sultans of Bengal (1486-1493), the Nawabs of Janjira (1618-1948), the Sidi Masud of Adoni (17th Century) and the Nawabs of Sachin (1791-1948).
To view the exhibit online, go here.
After the exhibit, Mother and I went to a special event celebrating the publication of Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America by Vivek Bald. Mr. Bald made a presentation of his book which explores the history of Muslim men from Southern India who settled in Harlem in the 1920's through 1950's who married African American, Puerto Rican and West Indian women. These men had families and became part of the neighborhood, often opening businesses and interacting with other Muslims in Harlem.
Joining him was Alaudin Ullah, an actor/playwright from East Harlem and a descendant of a Bengali and Puerto Rican couple. He performed an excerpt of his one-man show "Dishwasher Dreams" which was followed by an excerpt of the upcoming documentary film, "In Search of Bengali Harlem" that Bald and Ullah are working on together.
Initially we came for the art exhibit, not knowing about the Bengali in Harlem event, so this was a pleasant surprise. It also brought to mind a little of our family history. My great-aunt Effie Mae and her husband, Uncle Tony, a longshoreman from Bangladesh who met in Harlem during this same time period. (Both are now deceased and buried together in the family plot at Jubilee Baptist Church in Taylors, South Carolina).
While watching clips of the documentary, which featured vintage film footage of Bengali-owned shops and restaurants in Harlem, my mother remarked that she had forgotten them and remembered patronizing them on visits to Harlem as a young girl. For me, having grown up in Harlem in an era when many of these businesses had closed, it was a piece of Harlem history I had never known.
To learn more about the book and upcoming documentary, visit here.
Attending the Africans in India exhibition and the Bengali in Harlem event was a cultural learning experience that broadened my world view and expanded my view of the black experience. Having these kinds of experiences and in particular at the Schomburg Center adds to my personal and cultural knowledge. It also makes me so thankful for this cultural institution and committed to its legacy.