Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) kickstarts her presidential campaign at a rally in her hometown of Oakland, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 27, 2019. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The shaping of Kamala Harris’ identity

It’s an important moment for Senator Kamala Harris. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Harris announced that she was launching her 2020 presidential campaign. Her timely memoir — “The Truths We Hold — an American Journey” — assembles together what the senator wants the voter to see: a woman of formidable substance.

Too often, memoirs become platforms to enhance the public persona of political figures at opportune moments in their political career. In Senator Kamala Harris’ memoir, too, there are long sections promoting and protecting her public record as a prosecutor in Oakland, district attorney of San Francisco, attorney general of California and senator in the United States Congress. But Harris also offers readers endearing glimpses into the relationships of the people she loves, adding much needed nuance to her tightly guarded personality.

If the values of an individual are shaped by family and friends, Harris is in good company. On February 16, 2017 Kamala Harris began her maiden speech on the floor of the United States Senate: “Above all, I rise today with a sense of gratitude for all those upon whose shoulders we stand. For me, it starts with my mother, Shyamala Harris.” Her mother’s influence threads through Harris’ entire narrative making the memoir utterly compelling.

Shyamala Gopalan, an immigrant from India arrived in California in 1958 to pursue an advanced degree in nutrition and endocrinology at UC Berkeley, according to the memoir. She was a teenager when she arrived in America and acquired a doctorate degree by the time she was in her mid-twenties. Along the way, Gopalan met Donald Harris, an immigrant from Jamaica, studying at UC Berkeley who went on to teach economics at Stanford. The two fell in love, married, had two daughters and later divorced.

Gopalan brought up the girls, Kamala and her sister Maya, with strict discipline, a strong passion for the scientific method, and a deep and “unwavering love and loyalty.” Even on her deathbed, Kamala’s mother’s concern for her children were front and center as she asked the hospice nurse, “Are my daughters going to be okay?” At the time, Kamala was the District Attorney of San Francisco and Maya was a vice president at the Ford Foundation.

Significantly, Kamala Harris’ identity was molded and shaped, not to conform with her mother’s, but instead to fulfill a heightened sense of purpose that came from being black and the daughter of immigrants.

“From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community,” Harris wrote about her mother. With a keen sense of cultural and racial awareness, Shyamala Gopalan Harris immersed herself in the civil rights movement, embracing the ideas of prominent black leaders.

Kamala Harris grew up listening to gospel and jazz, encountered civil rights activists, and spent her afternoons at Regina Shelton’s after-school program where posters of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth graced the wall. On Thursdays, “Shyamala and her girls” would head over to Rainbow Sign, a performance space in Oakland for black thinkers, artists and leaders of the day. When it came time to go to college, Harris picked Howard University — Thurgood Marshall’s alma mater — an institution that stood in stately defiance of the prevailing racial attitudes of the time. After Howard, Harris went to UC Hastings College of Law in The City, where she was elected president of the Black Law Students Association. Kamala grew up, by clear design, embracing her black heritage.

If black culture was mostly indoctrinated, immigrant experience, it appears, was largely assimilated. “Stand up straight. Don’t laugh. Don’t fidget. Have all your stuff. Be prepared,” Harris recalled her mother’s instructions when approaching the customs and immigration desk at airports. The advice was likely fueled by the feeling of insecurity that many first-generation immigrants experience, myself included, when approaching borders and immigration desks: the fear of being judged and found wanting by the gatekeepers of America.

Harris put this fear in perspective: “The first time Doug [Harris’ husband] and I went through customs together, my muscle memory kicked in. I was preparing myself in the usual way, making sure we had everything just right and in order. Meanwhile, Doug was as relaxed as ever.”

The words Kamala uses to describe her “brilliant” mother are a measure of her esteem. She writes that her mother “was born with the sense of justice imprinted on her soul,” yet at the same time Harris separated herself from her mother’s experiences. She recounted how irate and protective she would feel when her mother, the cancer researcher, was treated “as though she were dumb because of her accent.”

These details about Kamala Harris tell me more about Harris’ capacity for compassion than the work she’s affected with the truancy prevention program or her negotiation of a $20 billion relief deal for homeowners during the foreclosure crisis, or her opposition to the anti-gay Proposition 8.

Even while her first name heralds her Indian American roots, the memoir is sparse on the details of how or even if she relates to her mother’s culture, and perhaps that’s by design too.

It’s evident that Kamala Harris has a remarkably indivisible sense of who she is, instilled by her mother, an Indian American immigrant. That’s the beautiful irony of Shyamala Gopalan Harris. That’s also the fascinating complexity of Kamala Harris.

Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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