In the streets of U.S. cities, Brown history is often invisible. It took a group of historians and Berkeley activists to address an injustice committed over a hundred years ago.Michaela Stone Cross
It’s easy enough to make an Asian American feel like an outsider. It just takes two words: “Go home.” Whether a first- or fourth-generation immigrant, the phrase can erase a person’s entire history, especially when that history is invisible to most. For exactly this reason, a group of activists ran a successful campaign to rename a section of Berkeley’s Shattuck Avenue to Kala Bagai Way. Bagai was not, as you might think, a resident of Berkeley. Rather, she is someone who should have been, but one day was told to go home.
It happened in 1915. Kala Bagai — one of the earliest South Asian women to come to America — had just bought a home in Berkeley. But before she could even move in, she was barred from entering by a group of angry neighbors during a time where anti-Asian riots were all too common. Worried about their three children’s safety, Bagai and her husband Vaishno Das left for a more hospitable neighborhood. Only a few years later, her husband would be stripped of his citizenship by federal law, turning an American family into outsiders once more. Her husband, after fighting the change in court, took his own life as a final protest.
“I do not choose to live the life of an interned person,” wrote Vaishno Das Bagai in his suicide note to the press. “[Y]es, I am in a free country and can move about where and when I wish inside the country. Is life worth living in a gilded cage? Obstacles this way, blockades that way, and the bridges burnt behind. Yes, you can call me a coward in one respect, that I did not try to break the mountain with my naked head and fists.”
Kala Bagai, despite every incentive, did not “go home.” She could not “break the mountain,” but chose to fight on, establishing a home not just for herself in Los Angeles but also a home for the small South Asian community. There she would invite new immigrants to dinner, making sure they had a home-away-from-home in a strange new land. Taking a platonic husband — “there wasn’t any love business,” she told her grandaughter — Bagai raised her children while hosting cultural events in a country where South Asian culture was little understood. By the time she finally gained citizenship in 1946 under the Luce-Celler Act signed by President Harry Truman, Bagai had created a community nicknamed “Little India.”
And until very recently, Bagai was lost to history. If her daughter had not donated a collection of family records to the then new South Asian American Digital Archives (SAADA), it might have been forever. “I realized reading through these records,” recounted her granddaughter, Rani Bagai, “my grandparents were a lot cooler than I thought.”
History, some teachers say, is the process of leaving things out. What we leave out tends to tell us as much about our society as what we choose to remember, and so often Brown folk are the ones America chooses to forget. But South Asian American history is not just American history — it’s radical history. From Berkeley’s Ghadar Movement, which fought for the violent revolt against colonial oppression in the early 1900s, to the Brown freedom fighters who went to jail to protest Jim Crow in the 1960s, South Asian American history has often been closely connected to the struggle for racial equality worldwide.
“It’s incredibly more complicated than the standard story of post-1965 doctors and engineers moving to the suburbs, making a lot of money and blending in,” said Michelle Caswell, co-founder of SAADA. “It was much more complicated, exciting, and political than that."
Kamala Harris springs from that very history — her mother and father were students and activists at Berkeley, a hub for South Asian American activism and civil rights. Yet if you walk through Berkeley, there’s not a lot of buildings or street names that reflect this — mostly white male names.
“It wasn’t going to happen organically,” said Barnali Ghosh, an activist and community historian who runs Berkeley’s South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. “History is being told by white institutions, histories of cities like Berkeley.” Ghosh and her husband Anirvan Chatterjee started the tour for exactly that reason: Berkeley, a city that is 24% Asian and only 48% non-Hispanic white (compared to 76% non-Hispanic white for the U.S.), doesn’t have a single street named after a South Asian American — even though Berkeley was one of the earliest destinations for early Brown immigrants to America.
South Asian street names in America are rare altogether, and when they do exist, tend to happen in “Little Indias” and “Little Pakistans.” Examples include Jackson Heights in Queens, New York, which has an honorary street name for astronaut Kalpana Chawla or the Mahatma Gandhi District in Houston, Texas. In “Little Pakistan” in Brooklyn, New York, part of Coney Island Avenue was co-named Muhammad Ali Jinnah Way, after the first prime minister of Pakistan.
“I was taught that my history was only back in India,” said Chatterjee, who grew up in the Bay Area. “As if my American history began the day my parents got off the plane. We don’t necessarily see ourselves reflected on the streets, in the textbooks, even though there have been South Asians in the U.S. since the 17th century.”
“There’s a feminist concept in media studies called ‘symbolic annihilation,’ where members of minorit[y] communities are either absent, misrepresented, or underrepresented in the mainstream media,” said Caswell. What’s left are bureaucratic records and family histories that go untold. East Asian American activists on the West Coast fought long and hard to make sure their history wasn’t ‘annihilated’ — their history is more documented in school textbooks, their historical preservation funded by universities. But South Asian Americans were fewer in number, and their history is often confined to the academy at best. Things are changing, at least in California, but until recently South Asian American history was confined to ethnic studies.
Rani Bagai — who grew up close to her grandmother — was unaware of her family’s important history until she read preserved family documents in her late 30s.
“I’ve always been interested in this history, but I didn’t even realize that [my grandparents] were a part of it until they were gone,” said Bagai. Her grandmother hadn’t gone into the painful and taboo subject of her grandfather’s suicide. She didn’t talk much about her role in the early days of South Asian immigration, leaving praise for others, not herself.
“This wasn’t just a one-way street,” said Bagai. “It wasn’t just my grandmother who assimilated into American culture. It went the other way around.” Bagai introduced Indian culture to America at a time when Indian culture was almost unknown: the newspaper clipping announcing her arrival describes her naath (nose ring) as “the latest fad from India.”
Kala Bagai’s son Ram, a lover of film, even introduced several famous Bollywood films to America, such as Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957). He brought a reel to America, showing it in local theatres, and it received a Golden Globe for best international film. By hosting a network of Americans and South Asians, she helped “weave Indian culture and themes into America’s own fabric, into its own narrative, helped it become a part of our narrative today,” said Rani Bagai.
“For me, she embodies a different model of leadership,” said Ghosh. “She is more like our mothers and grandmothers who invite people to the dining table, aiding the community.”
“South Asian immigrant women are [usually] in the kitchen, in the shadows, kind of behind the scenes,” said Monisha Bajaj, professor at the University of San Francisco California. “It’s great that we get to have one of the early community leaders like that on a street name.”
It’s fallen upon educational institutions and academics to uncover and tell these histories. In recent years, scholars have documented revolutionary facets of the South Asian American experience: the “Punjabi Mexicans” of the West Coast, the “Black Bengalis” of Harlem.
“These are known histories,” said Chatterjee. “They’re known in academia, by scholars, but they’re often trapped in books written by historians for historians, they’re trapped in college classes. And for the 90% of us who never have taken college ethnic studies classes, they really have no easy access to those stories.” Ghosh and Chatterjee discovered the story of Bagai through SAADA.
“The first time one of my interview subjects saw SAADA, she said it was like suddenly discovering herself existing,” said Caswell.
“[But] that feeling [of belonging] can be taken away very quickly,” said Ghosh. “You can be standing at a bus stop in a sari, and a person walks by and tells you to ‘go home.’ Those instances are not that common, but they’re common enough and they can crush you.
Kala Bagai Way is now smack in the middle of downtown Berkeley — that is the most important thing. Brown street names, when they do exist, usually exist in the parts of town where white folks usually visit, not live. “Little Indias” and “Little Bangladeshes” are a testament to America’s greatest strengths and greatest failures. They are thriving communities where immigrants can find a sense of belonging. But they are also some of the few places where some immigrants feel truly welcome — and they propagate the illusion that these places are not really America, that America by definition is not a place an Asian person calls home.
“For many years, I did not feel completely at home in Berkeley,” said Ghosh, who came from Bangalore to study. “When we started doing the walking tour, that was a transformation for me because I felt empowered by the fact that these activists who looked like me, we're walking the streets of Berkeley a hundred years ago. And so I walked differently on the streets of Berkeley.”
Kala Bagai was then and is now making Brown folks feel at home in America. And hopefully, after the decision to give her a street name, Kala Bagai is home for good.
Michaela Stone Cross is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. She currently lives in Mumbai, where she spends most of her time trying to explain why she's there. She's written for several publications, including VICE.
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