Noorul Huck Akunjee: "a Hindu and not a White person..."

Born 1878 in Calcutta (Kolkata), Bengal, India, Noorul Huck Akunjee was already in his early 30s by the time he made the decision to leave his British-controlled homeland. By managing to extricate himself from colonial rule, Huck had already proven himself to be a tenaciously adaptable and determined individual, qualities that would again be needed in his adoptive country of the United States. Against great odds, he survived—maybe even thrived—but before long his American dream came to a crashing halt.

During the late 1890s, Huck worked as a superintendent in Calcutta's General Post Office, but by the time he emigrated to the U.S. in 1909 he had become a trader. Huck was coming in at the tail end of a relatively small, largely forgotten wave of Bengali immigration to the U.S. that took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.1 For many that were a part of it, this series of migrations ended with an even lesser known outcome for the broader community of immigrant South Asians who became U.S. citizens: denaturalization.

After piecing together a partial narrative of Huck's life from archival documents, it became clear that his emigration, integration, naturalization, and subsequent denaturalization almost one hundred years ago would reveal a deeply unsettling story—all the more so because of the parallels at work in the recent state-administered denaturalization task force.

Indo-Orientalism in America

Emigration often entails employment decidedly outside of an émigré's comfort zone—something as true today as it was one hundred years ago. For Huck, becoming an American would in part mean reinventing himself as a dealer in Oriental goods, commodities which had become increasingly desirable throughout the western world since the 1890s. In the U.S. he became part of a small but thriving network of Bengali traders in chikan (a traditional Indian embroidery), muslin, silks, textiles and fabrics which came from the then still exotic east. After moving between Asbury Park, Atlantic City, New Orleans and Galveston, Huck would eventually settle in Houston, Texas—all the while working as a chikondar, selling his goods on boardwalks and open air markets, like many of his Bengali compatriots.

But before going any further into Huck's life in his newly adopted country, it's important to first locate what was primarily driving Bengali immigration to the U.S. at the time; it wasn't a labor shortage but rather a supply shortage, pushed by consumer demand for an exotic product. People like Huck would quickly learn how to capitalize on a market no one else could fill. But how did such a demand come about? The answer, in part, lies with how the west was appropriating the east, both materially and culturally, through colonialism. Land and resources had long been taken, people subjugated, exploited, terrorized or "benevolently assimilated", but by the 19th century the arts had caught up with colonialism in its own way—through the transmission of western fantasy of orientalist opulence vis-à-vis public events.2 For those who could afford it, chikondars like Huck were giving people the opportunity to mimic the exoticism that was already mimicking original fashions of non-western cultures. In short, Orientalism had reached American shores, quickly setting a new vogue among the classes with a disposable income that could allow them to go beyond the necessary.

Orientalism was a pervasive phenomena during the early 20th century, affecting many forms of art [including fashion] and architecture across the western world, and lies at the heart of what fueled demand for Huck's merchandise. But demand came with a price and would stop far short of embracing much of the humanity that created the original forms. A shallow but dominating drive for ersatz authenticity and a way for westerners to mask themselves—in a refined and tolerable way—in the clothing of the exotic other while remaining fully dominant over the people/culture that produced it.

Many of the sui generis forms employed or mimicked in Orientalist art have quietly gone on to UNESCO's "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" lists, including some of the techniques used in the materials Huck was trading. But during Huck's time the overbearingly patronizing aspect of Orientalism blotted out the seemingly benign act of consumers simply buying fabrics and clothing materials. What was taking place during this era might today be called cultural appropriation, though at the time it was perhaps simply a way to sublimate racism. Westerners wanted the products but could scarcely tolerate, let alone welcome, the people that produced them. The same can be said of the labor that Sikh and other South Asian émigrés were contributing to agricultural, mining and railroad industries during the early 20th century in the United States.

"A strange, exotic thing in the western landscape"

The infamous Dictionary of Races or Peoples, first published by the U.S. Immigration Commission in 1911, just after Huck's arrival, and subsequently used as a standard diagnostic tool by immigration inspectors at Ellis Island and Angel Island, defines Bengalis as "...like ourselves [i.e. Whites], Aryan." Fourteen years after Huck's arrival, this specious racial characterization would prove to carry deep irony for Huck and thousands of other immigrants from South Asia, many of whom had become naturalized U.S. citizens.

After almost a decade in the U.S., Huck became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1917 and desired to travel back to India the following year "to see [his] feeble mother and settle up business affairs of her and my estate." Just eight months before his naturalization, the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed by the Senate (overriding vetoes from Presidents Taft and Wilson) and became law. It would eventually have a serious effect on Huck's status as a U.S. citizen, as well as disrupt his plans to return to India.

The Act had a number of provisions, including:

Here's where the irony begins. Only the final point could have affected Huck—would he have immigrated after 1917—but the racism built into the formation of the Asiatic Barred Zone would not only affect immigration laws, it would spill over into an extraordinarily consequential U.S. Supreme Court decision a few years later. Though it was likely unexpected to Huck and other South Asians, a legislative about-face was just around the corner, one that intersects with a key tenet of Orientalism: an inevitable, punishing destiny for the human component of Orientalist structures.

Even before his arrival to the U.S. in 1909, Huck was by all accounts a "desirable" immigrant on paper if not in person. According the ship's manifest which documented his arrival, Huck was literate, skilled, educated, spoke English, had money ($55 = over $1100 in 2021 dollars), was deemed healthy by immigration inspectors and would be joining a relative if allowed to enter the U.S. He ticked the boxes on the manifest far better than the average European immigrant and his years in America would only prove he was a loyal citizen in the making.
It was Huck's ethnicity that was becoming increasingly problematic after 1917, at least in the legal sense. Intolerance and open hostility from the federal government, immigration restriction advocates and the public were kicking into high gear. By the time the 1917 act came around, South Asian immigration to the U.S. had already been labeled as the "Tide of Turbans" in an essay by Californian poet and playwright Herman George Scheffauer; the term gained traction and quickly found it's way into sensationalist newspaper articles, particularly in west coast dailies, that served to heighten public paranoia.

After decades of incremental regulatory steps, the enforcement of the provisions listed above signaled a significant legislative turn toward race-based, federally administered immigration restriction and nativism. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act served in part as a successful model for the 1917 Act, which would eventually prevent South Asians from legally immigrating, obtaining or keeping their naturalization intact. Subsequent federal immigration acts passed in 1921 and 1924 would do much the same for southern and eastern Europeans, though the quota/national origins acts didn't exclude all European immigrants outright, prevent or strip them of naturalization. By 1924 that's exactly what was happening to South Asians like Huck.

The provision creating the Asiatic Barred Zone was, in fact, a thinly disguised prohibition against would-be immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent in particular, explicitly excluding from entry certain "classes of aliens" based on geographic origin, including:

persons who are natives of islands not possessed by the United States adjacent to the Continent of Asia [i.e. Philippines], situated south of the 20th parallel latitude north, west of the 160th meridian of longitude east from Greenwich, and north of the 10th parallel of latitude south, or who are natives of any country, province, or dependency situated on the Continent of Asia west of the 110th meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and south of the 50th parallel of latitude north.
(39 Stat. 874) Feb. 5, 1917 Sec. 3

A different kind of Whiteness

As with Chinese and Japanese immigrants before and southern Europeans to come, the so-called "Tide of Turbans or "Hindu Peril" would manifest itself in many ways, including in the form of deplorable characterizations in the popular press. Though the total number of South Asian immigrants was a fraction compared to other ethnic groups, from the 1890s on, South Asians would make front-page appearances in U.S. newspapers as both menacing, untrustworthy and disease-carrying others, much as the Chinese had decades earlier. Exclusion and/or deportation is a recurring remedy, shadowing what was already taking place in legislative and political circles.
By the time Huck applied for a passport to travel back to India in 1918, World War I was only months away from its conclusion. For years the conflict had massively affected transoceanic voyages, but there was another problem afoot, one that was drawing even more negative attention towards the Indian American community. An elaborate, well-funded "German-Hindu conspiracy", which involved plots to foment revolts on the Pacific Coast, had recently been uncovered and thwarted by the U.S. government. The plot was widely and sensationally reported in the national press and led to the arrest of a number of Enemy Aliens originally from India, particularly those living in and around the San Francisco area. It would conveniently add to a long-simmering and not infrequently violent hostility "natives" were exhibiting towards "orientals."

Perhaps due to this tense and increasingly antagonistic situation, Huck appears to have had some difficulty in having a passport issued to him for travel back to India in 1918.

His first passport application was refused "as it has not been shown to the satisfaction of the Department that it is imperatively necessary for you to leave the United States..." In a subsequent attempt, Huck would provide three affidavits attesting to his character and loyalty to the U.S. and that his intention to journey back to India was as stated. One of the supporting affidavits came from a Naturalization Examiner named M. H. Anthoni, who had know Huck for over four years. Anthoni stated:

[Huck's] character is of the best, his reputation is excellent and I have found him to be a sober and industrious man, well formed to the principles of our government and attached to the same.

The other letters submitted came from a local attorney and a foreman at a Houston post office, both of whom had known Huck for years and were written in a similar, praiseworthy manner. Huck's own statement is confident, direct and simply extraordinary.

Never mind that. Was Huck White? According to his World War I Draft Registration made on 18 September 1918—after a false start from the registrar—he apparently was.

But this and his "Aryan" status enshrined in the Dictionary of Races or Peoples mentioned above weren't going to matter very much.

Shortly after submitting his WWI draft registration, Huck left the U.S. for India via San Francisco. WWI officially ended on 11 November 1918 and travel records show that by early 1919, Huck had made it to Manila and was to set sail for India on 20 January. This is the last time he makes an appearance in consular or immigration/emigration documents or any of the other places Huck was included on before, e.g. city directories, census documents, etc. Huck apparently stayed in Calcutta for an indeterminate period of time and perhaps never even returned to the U.S. He would, however, be named in U.S. Federal court documents several years later.

Denaturalizing Huck

Just prior to the next thread in the paper trail that Huck appears in, a 1923 U.S. Supreme Court ruling would completely upturn the status of Asian Indians who had settled in the U.S. The final decision handed down in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind explicitly concludes that the blood of even "high caste Hindu stock" from the Punjab (like Thind), let alone from other parts, is irreversibly tainted to such an extent that they could never be considered "free white persons" as the Fathers of 1790 could have conceived:

It may be, therefore, that the given group cannot be properly assigned to any of the enumerated grand racial divisions. The type may have been so changed by intermixture of blood as to justify an intermediate classification. Something very like this has actually taken place in India. Thus, in Hindustan and Berar there was such an intermixture of the “Aryan” invader with the dark-skinned Dravidian [...] The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.3

With the decision, Bhagat Singh Thind had the appeal which granted him citizenship in 1923 overturned and was subsequently denaturalized.4 Though the precise number of total denaturalization cases is not know, the Supreme Court's decision here would quickly go on to adversely affect the citizenship status of many naturalized South Asians, including Huck's.5

In 1924, the Southern District Court of Houston Texas retroactively deemed Huck to be ineligible for citizenship. Though lawfully obtained in 1917, Huck's U.S. naturalization was "canceled and held for naught" because he was [still] "...a Hindu and not a White person within the meaning of Section 2169 of the Revised Statutes of the United States of America..." When Huck left India for the U.S. in 1909, he was neither an Indian or British citizen but rather a British subject. His U.S. citizenship, which he held for some seven years, was the first and perhaps only time he experienced being a legal member of a sovereign state.

Vivek Bald writes:

Not only had Indians been cast as undesirable, but they had been made permanent outsiders. For the next twenty years, it remained this way: Indians were prevented from immigrating to the United States, from owning land, from voting, and from naturalizing—from becoming an accepted part of the nation.6

What became of Huck? A number of scenarios are plausible.

If Huck was still in the U.S. after his denaturalization, he might have lived out the rest of his life in the shadows of U.S. economy and society or may have even been deported back to India. In either case, this would explain his absence in the paper trail from subsequently issued government documents. Vivek Bald has shown, remarkably, that a number of Bengali men married into African American and Latino families around this time, particularly in the American South...melding into communities of color, both urban and rural. Perhaps Huck found "cover" in this manner as well.

Many South Asians like Huck were denaturalized after 1924, while others whose status as declarants or resident aliens put them at greater risk. All would have experienced extreme insecurity and a tenuous future so long as they stayed, though leaving wasn't going to be easy either. To make maters even worse for South Asians that married U.S. citizens, denaturalization would potentially put their spouses' citizenship status in jeopardy, due to a clause in the Cable Act of 1922 which stipulated that women who married foreign nationals ineligible for naturalization (i.e. Asians) would forfeit their own U.S. citizenship.7

While Huck's ultimate fate in the U.S. after his denaturalization is unknown, documented cases of other South Asians who faced the same obstacles do exist. A 17 March 1928 article in the San Francisco Examiner gives some fascinating, and heartbreaking, insight into the plight of denaturalized South Asians who remained in the U.S. In it, a Peshawar-born immigrant named Lala Vaishno Das Bagai, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1915 with his wife and three children and became a U.S. citizen in 1921, recounts his years of crisis after denaturalization. Despite experiencing personal and financial success after emigration, he committed suicide in 1928 "in protest against the refusal of the United States government to recognize the American citizenship which he claimed." The disillusionment of being rendered stateless and disenfranchised was profound. Just before taking his life, Das Bagai sent the Examiner a "letter to the world", apparently in the hopes that they would publish it—to which they did the very same day. It is both eloquent and profoundly devastating:

WHO IS RESPONSIBLE? But they now come to me and say, I am no longer an American citizen. They will not permit me to buy my home and lo, they even shall not issue me a passport to go back to India. Now what am I? What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights, we cannot leave this country. Humility and insults, who is responsible for all this? Myself and American government. I do not choose to live the life of an interned person: yes, 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.8

To add further irony and tragedy to Das Bagai and Huck's cases, in December 1926 a Senate Joint Resolution proposed "That the naturalizations aforesaid are hereby ratified and confirmed and the persons aforesaid are declared to be citizens of the United States, and no woman citizen of the United States shall be deemed to, have lost her citizenship by reason of her marriage to any of said persons." Huck and Das Bagai were among the 67 "aforesaid" persons named; this ratification would have overturned lower court rulings and restored their citizenship, but the resolution failed to pass.9

Signed into law on 2 July 1946, the Luce–Celler Act (H. R. 3517; Public Law 483) allowed an annual token quota of 100 Indians and 100 Filipinos to emigrate to the United States; it also provided the right for existing declarants to naturalize and become U.S. citizens. However, it wouldn't be until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 came into force that all South Asians like Huck would have a fair opportunity to emigrate, integrate, naturalize as U.S. Citizens—and to not live in fear of their citizenship being "cancelled and held for naught."

As of 2019, there are over 4 million Indian Americans in the United States—a population that has doubled in size since 2000.10


1 Contemporary research is revealing extraordinary Bengali American legacies that have been hiding in plain sight. For example, see: Bald, Vivek (2015) "Bengali Harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America" and Munshi, Sherally (2017) "Immigration, Imperialism, and the Legacies of Indian Exclusion," Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 28 : Iss. 1, Article 2.

2 For example, the Ballets Russes' hugely-influential productions of Scheherazade and Les Orientales during the 1910s caused a public sensation with near-immediate effects on all of the arts, including fashion.  Concurrently, Edwardian era dress would more subtly incorporate orientalist elements; but long before, western European fashion had already been influenced by oriental styles and materials. One example of this can be seen in Europe's aristocracy (including Joséphine Bonaparte) quickly adopting Dhaka muslin from Bengal after its introduction by the British in the early 19th century, making it the world's most valuable fabric—while its revealing qualities scandalized polite society.

3 United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923)

4 Thind was a WWI veteran and after the Alien Veteran Naturalization (aka Nye-Lea Act) was passed by Congress in 1935, which allowed "any alien veteran of the World War heretofore ineligible to citizenship because not a free white person or of African nativity or of African descent may be naturalized under this Act...", he again petitioned for naturalization and was ultimately successful later that year. See: 49 Stat. 397, 74th Congress, Sess. I, Chap. 290, Pub.L. 74-162.

5 While a precise number of denaturalizations is not ascertainable, based on the number of South Asian departures in subsequent years, the figure probably runs in the hundreds: "In conjunction with the 1917 Immigration Act, this episode of denaturalizations led to the collapse of the South Asian community in the United States: It is estimated that close to 3,000 South Asians left the United States between 1920 and 1940." In Zhao, X., & In Park, E. J. W. (2015). Asian Americans: An encyclopedia of social, cultural, economic, and political history. 557, (Kritika Agarwal).

6 Bald, V. (2015). Bengali Harlem and the lost histories of South Asian America. 2.

7 See the "Married Women's independent Citizenship Act of September 22, 1922": § 5. "That no woman whose husband is not eligible to citizenship shall be naturalized during the continuance of the marital status...” 42 Stat. 1021b, Pub.L. 67-346.

8 HERE'S LETTER TO THE WORLD FROM SUICIDE. (1928, Mar 17). San Francisco Examiner.  Available via South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA).

9 United States. 1926. Ratification and confirmation of naturalization of certain persons of the Hindu race. Hearings, Sixty-ninth Congress, second session, on S.J. Res, 128. Washington: Govt. Print. Off. Available via Google Books.

10 U.S Census Bureau. ACS 1-Year Estimates Detailed - Tables Total Asian alone population (2019). ASIAN ALONE BY SELECTED GROUPS Survey/Program: American Community Survey Years: 2019, Table: B02015.  Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

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