About Kamala Harris

Posted from the capital city of Little Rock, Arkansas by Linda Lou Burton – Go wide and go deep are marketing buzzwords, football strategies; and just plain common sense when you go about considering things. Yesterday I talked about Joe Biden and his depth of experience. Today, let’s go wide with Kamala Harris, the 49th Vice President of the United States. Her experiences are as wide as the oceans, borderless and interracial. She is half black, she is half Asian; she is 100% American. Her father was born in Jamaica, her mother was born in India, and she was born in the United States. An interesting connection popped into my mind about these three countries: as different as they are, all were once under British colonial rule; all struggled for independence; all succeeded.

India & Jamaica & the USA

Let’s talk about the biggest country first. Located in south Asia, India takes up more than 1 million square miles on the planet; it is the world’s 2nd most populous country with over 1 billion people; it is the world’s most populous democracy. Kamala’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born there in 1938, when India was still under British colonial rule. Independence was attained in 1947, when Shyamala was 9 years old, and by the time she was 28 in 1966, Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, the first female to serve her country as such.

Jamaica is a tiny Caribbean island nation, just south of Cuba, with a land area of 4,244 square miles and a population of just under 3 million. Kamala’s father, Donald Jasper Harris, was born in Jamaica in 1938, when Jamaica was still under British colonial rule. A colonial Jamaican government scholarship brought him to the University of California Berkley in 1961. On August 6, 1962, Jamaica gained its independence and Alexander Bustamante became Prime Minister. And that was the year Donald Harris met Shyamala Gopalan.

The United States sits mostly in the middle of North America, with a land area of 3,796,742 square miles and 330+ million people, the 3rd largest country in the world in both size and population. Kamala Devi Harris was born in the United States October 20, 1964, some 181 years after the end of British colonial rule. Vice President Lyndon Johnson had become President after the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963; it was the time of the Great Society, the War on Poverty, the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act.

The 1960s, and Then

Berkeley was a hotbed of activism in the 1960s. Donald Harris arrived there from Jamaica in 1961, remember, as a graduate student in economics. Shyamala Gopalan had been there since 1958, heading halfway around the world at age 19 to study nutrition and endocrinology. The two met in 1962 at a meeting of the Afro-American Association, he spoke that evening; they talked; more meetings, more talk. They married the next year; two bright, intelligent people caught up the electricity of change – at Berkeley, across the United States, in their home countries. Jamaica became an independent nation; Indira Gandhi became India’s first female Prime Minister; Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights agenda took hold. Shyamala earned her PhD in 1964; Donald earned his in 1966. They had babies together, two daughters, Kamala in 1964, Maya in 1967. They moved around as their careers began to bloom; university teaching appointments, research. In 1972, they parted ways. Shyamala’s reputation in cancer research is legendary; it led to advancements in the knowledge of hormones pertaining to breast cancer; she served on the President’s Special Commission on Breast Cancer. Donald’s reputation is equally solid; Professor of Economics at Stanford from 1972-1998, now Professor Emeritus there. Throughout his career he has worked on economic analysis and policy regarding the economy of Jamaica and served as economic advisor to successive Prime Ministers.

Going Wide

So what did that mean for Kamala? It means she was born to parents from vastly different backgrounds; college students who left their home countries and worked hard to earn advanced degrees and move forward into productive lives. It means that in 1969 California, as part of Berkeley’s comprehensive desegregation program, she was bused to kindergarten from her black neighborhood to a more prosperous white one. It means that when she visited grandparents, she got to travel to Jamaica, and to India. It means she romped and played with cousins whose accents were different from hers, and each other’s. It means she became the child of divorced parents; she and her sister moved to Quebec with their mother. She attended a French-speaking primary school; she graduated high school in Montreal in 1981; then on to Howard University in Washington, DC. While at Howard, she interned as a mailroom clerk for California senator Alan Cranston, chaired the economics society, led the debate team, and joined Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, graduating in 1986 with a degree in political science and economics. Law school next at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where she was president of its chapter of the Black Law Students Association. Law degree 1989; California Bar 1990. That’s 26 years of Going Wide, I’d say.

The Next 30 Years

Beginning in 1990, Kamala did “lawyer work,” Deputy District Attorney in Alameda County, California; Assistant District Attorney in San Francisco; she prosecuted homicide, burglary, robbery, and sexual assault cases; she ran the Family & Childrens Services Division representing child abuse and neglect cases. Then in 2003, she ran for her first elected position, and won; here’s the list from there:

  • 2003 San Francisco District Attorney
  • 2007 San Francisco District Attorney
  • 2010 California Attorney General
  • 2014 California Attorney General
  • 2016 US Senator, California (note: sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden in 2017)
  • 2020 US Vice President

Personally, she lost her mother; Shyamala died in 2009; Kamala and sister Maya journeyed to India to scatter their mother’s ashes in the Indian Ocean. In 2014, she got married, gaining not only a husband, but two step children. Douglas Craig Emhoff was born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn October 13, 1964; the family moved to California when he was 17. He has a law background too; as the new Second Gentleman he gave up his law practice but will be joining the faculty at Georgetown University Law Center. The kids from his earlier marriage – Cole and Ella (named after John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald) – are 26 and 21 now, did you notice them on the platform at the Inauguration? They call Kamala “Momala,” a new term for our dictionaries, as is “Second Gentleman.” Her family has continued to grow; sister Maya (also a lawyer) has a daughter Meena (also a lawyer); Meena has two daughters, Amara and Lela, the cuties you may have noticed in the Inaugural Parade wearing those faux fur leopard coats which were inspired by similar coats worn by Kamala and Maya when they visited their grandparents in India as children.

So Here We Are

Kamala’s inauguration as the United State’s first female, inter-racial, multi-cultural vice-president was celebrated not only in the United States, where a dazzling fireworks display capped off the evening, family members and followers celebrated the event in Jamaica and in India too. It went wide! Note the poster display congratulating Kamala with flags from each of the three countries.

What brought Kamala to this place in history? I dug up a few things her parents said to her over the years.

Father Donald Jasper Harris: My message….was that the sky is the limit on what one can achieve with effort and determination and that, in this process, it is important not to lose sight of those who get left behind by social neglect or abuse and lack of access to resources or ‘privilege’; also not to get ‘swell-headed’ ….and that it is important to ‘give back’ with service to some greater cause than oneself.

Mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris: “It’s too hard!” is never an acceptable excuse. Being a good person means standing for something larger than yourself. Success is measured in part by what you help others achieve and accomplish. Most of all, Kamala recalls, her mother instilled in her that she should always “fight systems in a way that causes them to be fairer, and don’t be limited by what has always been.

Don’t be limited by what has always been. “I may be the first to hold this office,” Kamala said on November 7, 2020, commenting on the uniqueness of her election, “but I won’t be the last.”