By Arul Louis
New York, Nov 8 (IANS) When Kamala Devi Harris enters 1 Observatory Circle, the official home of the Vice President in January 2021, she will have achieved many firsts: The first woman, the first person of Indian descent, the first African-American, the first with Jamaican heritage, the first daughter of immigrants to hold that office
Joe Biden, who has been declared the winner of the 2020 US presidential election by the media, marvelling at her string of firsts, said on Saturday: “Once again, America has bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. It’s long overdue.”
Harris is the embodiment of the American dream with the amalgam of all those unique identities and adding to that her White Jewish husband, Douglas Emhoff, and step-daughters to complete the American mosaic.
Her multi-racial background gives her a degree of identity fluidity to navigate American society riven by race and ethnicity.
Born in the US to immigrants, cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan from India and economics professor Donald Harris from Jamaica, Harris has leapt in a generation to a position that puts her a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Harris wrote in her memoir, “The Truths We Hold”, that she was raised in “a place where people believed in the most basic tenet of the American Dream: that if you worked hard and do right by the world, your kids will be better of than you were”.
In her victory speech on Saturday night, she said of her mother: “When she came here from India at the age of 19, maybe she didn’t quite imagine this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”
After her parents divorced when she was only seven, Harris was brought up by her mother, who she called “the woman most responsible for my presence here today”.
She has described her mother as “tough and fierce and protective” yet “generous and loyal and funny”, and credits her for her success.
In her memoir, Harris wrote that the lesson she inherited from her mother that “it was service to others that gave life purpose and meaning” came from her grandmother Rajam, who had not completed high school but was a fiery protector of victims of domestic abuse.
Moving from New Delhi to Berkeley for her PhD in the tumultuous era of the 1960s civil rights movements, Shyamala Gopalan joined the protests “with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul”, Harris wrote.
Her relationship with fellow-activist Donald Harris grew under the clamour of the protests and Kamala Harris recalls: “My parents often brought me in a stroller with them to civil rights marches.”
In this environment, she wrote: “My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
Her sister Maya is also a lawyer.
One of her experiences from her childhood popped up in her memorable confrontation with Biden during a debate last year when she was running for president against him — and almost 20 others — in the initial phases of the Democratic presidential race.
Questioning his credentials on fighting racism, she said that while he opposed efforts to racially integrate schools by transporting children by bus from their racially segregated areas to schools in another place to break down racial barriers, she happened to be one of the children on those buses.
That also brought out the age difference between them. He will be the oldest president to take office next year at 78, when she would be only 55.
One of the criteria for his vice president pick was for her to be younger, but with enough experience and capability to become president if the need arose.
While the African-American identity became the dominant one and, in fact, the one that boosted her chances to the get the vice presidential nomination, Harris wrote: “Our classical Indian names harked back to our heritage and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture.
“My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots.
“I was also very close to my mother’s brother, Balu, and her two sisters, Sarala and Chinni (whom I called Chittis, which means ‘younger mother’ (in Tamil),” she recalled.
Her uncle, G. Balachandran is a retired academic, who has a PhD from the US. Her aunt Sarala is a retired obstetrician and the other aunt, whose formal name is Mahalaxmi, was an information scientist in Canada.
Harris made a humorous video with actor-director Mindy Kaling about making masala dosa that was released during her campaign for presidential nomination.
Shyamala Gopalan’s father P.V. Gopalan was born in Painganadu in Tamil Nadu and joined government service under the British and his work took him and the family to Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi and Lusaka, Zamibia, before he retired to Chennai after working for the post-Independence Indian government.
Harris claims that her grandfather had also been a “freedom-fighter,” although he worked for the British Raj.
She recalls visiting him as a child in Lusaka, where he had been sent by the Indian government in the late 1960s to help that young nation deal with a refugee crisis brought on by a renegade White supremacist government breaking away from Britain in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe after overthrowing them.
Shyamala Gopalan moved to Canada to teach and research in Montreal when Harris was about 12.
Harris rounded off her international exposure going to high school in Quebec. But she returned to the US to study at Howard University, a historically African-American institution in Washington.
She went back to California for her law degree, which she received from University of California Hastings College of Law.
She started off as a deputy prosecutor in Alameda County in California and moved on to San Francisco as an assistant prosecutor heading the career criminal division.
District attorneys or prosecutors are elected in California and she ran against the San Francisco prosecutor Terence Hallinan pulling an upset victory over him in 2003, and this launched her political career.
In 2010, she successfully contested the election for California attorney general and was re-elected 2014.
One of her controversial actions was to back criminal penalties for parents of children who are chronically absent from school with critics calling it the criminialisation of the poor.
She ran for the Senate in 2016 and was elected, putting her in the national spotlight. As a member of the judiciary committee, she brought her prosecutorial skills to the questioning of people like Brett Kavanaugh when he was the Supreme Court nominee, attorney general Willian Barr and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Harris does not appear to have close ties to her father and has not mentioned him in her speeches.
When she was asked the about 1,900 convictions her office obtained for offences relating to marijuana when she was the San Fracisco prosecutor, she admitted smoking it and reportedly joked: “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”
Her father rebuked her saying, according to Jamaica Global: “Myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.”
He accused her of bringing up “the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics”.
The publication said that according to some Jamaicans: “Harris tends to downplay her Jamaican heritage when it suits her, crediting her Tamil Indian mother with the most significant influence on her life and outlook and rarely talks about her father’s influence.
“Her father Donald, hardly ever gets credit except when mentioned alongside her mother, but rarely as an individual.”
There are echoes of the life stories of the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Their fathers also were divorced from their mothers and virtually estranged from them.
(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)