By Arul Louis
New York: Kamala Devi Harris has deftly melded her dominant African American identity with that of her Indian background as a Tamil to create the evergreen American classic of the immigrant dream.
Born in the US to immigrants, cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan from Chennai and economics professor Donald Harris from Jamaica, Harris has leaped in a generation to running for a position that could put her a heartbeat away from the presidency.
She 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 off than you were.”
On Tuesday Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, announced that she would be on his ticket for vice president.
Harris’s multiracial background – which includes a layer of a White Jewish husband, Douglas Emhoff, and two step children – gives her a degree of identity fluidity to navigate American society riven by race and ethnicity.
After her parents divorced when she was only seven, Harris was brought up by her mother, whom she has described 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 “it was service to others that gave life purpose and meaning” that she inherited from her mother came from her grandmother.
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. Gopalan’s relationship with fellow-activist Donald Harris grew under the clamor 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 and Kamala as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.” Maya is also a lawyer.
One of her experiences from her childhood popped up in her memorable confrontation with Biden during a primary debate last year. Questioning his credentials on 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 was one of the children on those buses.
That also brought out the age difference between them. If he wins, he will be the oldest president to take office next year at 78 when she would be only 56.
Hence, 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 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.”
She wrote, “My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots.”
Harris made a humorous video with actor-director Mindy Kaling about making masala dosa and it was released during her campaign for presidential nomination.
Harris’ grandfather P V Gopalan was from 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.
Harris writes that her grandfather had also been a “freedom-fighter.”
Shyamala Gopalan moved to Canada to teach at McGill University in Montreal when Harris was about 12. Harris rounded off her international exposure going to high school in Quebec. But returned to the US to study at Howard University, an African American institution in Washington.
But she does not appear to have close ties to her father.
When she was asked about 1,900 convictions her office obtained for offences relating to marijuana when she was the San Francisco prosecutor, she admitted smoking it and reportedly joked, “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”
Her father rebuked her for bringing up “the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics.”
One 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.”
In this, there are echoes of the life stories of the last two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Their fathers were divorced from their mothers and virtually estranged from them.