Ever since Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president of the United States, named Kamala Harris to be his vice president, my Facebook feed has been energized. Social media friends are swapping out their head shots and dog, beach, grandchild and martini profile pictures for selfies taken with Sen. Kamala Harris. “So my grandmother’s sister’s grandson’s wife’s father’s sister’s great granddaughter is Kamala,” my cousin posted humorously on WhatsApp, adding that there’s no doubt she’s “our Kamala.”
Kamala Devi Harris has shot to prominence and become “ours” in numerous ways: as a California resident, as a Bay Area native, as a woman of color, as a daughter of immigrants, and she became a member of my tribe when she dropped the word “chithis,” a Tamil word referring to her mother’s younger sisters, in her speech accepting the Democratic nomination for vice president.
It’s a significant moment, even historic, breaking all kinds of barriers. She is the first Black and Asian American woman standing for the position of vice president of America on a major party ticket. The actress Kerry Washington labeled Harris a trailblazer as she introduced her at the Democratic National Convention.
Interestingly, when asked about Harris’ meteoric rise to prominence a few days ago, Harris’ uncle, Dr. G. Balachandran (Bala) — her mother’s brother in India — said in an interview that he didn’t think she was the real trailblazer in the family. “Her mother was a bigger trailblazer,” he remarked. Kamala Harris’ Uncle Bala then proceeded to animatedly describe his sister, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and her achievements.
Shyamala finished her undergraduate studies in India when she was 19 years old and decided to chart her own career in America. She applied to the University of California, Berkeley for a master’s in biochemistry. When Shyamala told her parents she wanted to study abroad, they agreed to support her for a year. And so, back in 1959, Shyamala came to the United States when it was not the norm for a single young Indian woman to pursue a career in a foreign country where she knew nobody. “That way she was very, very strong,” Bala emphasized.
Shyamala went on to earn a doctorate and become a well-respected cancer researcher. Yet that wasn’t what set her apart, said Bala. “The interesting thing was not that she went for her PhD at a very young age. That’s good. Not many people did. But [that] she plunged into Berkeley campus politics.”
It was a time when the Free Speech Movement was kicking off, and for a young woman from India to participate in politics that didn’t involve India or South Asia was surprising, said Bala. Shyamala became a staunch civil rights activist, which shaped her worldview and ultimately that of her children. In Kamala Harris’ first speech as Joe Biden’s running mate she mentioned her parents “marching and shouting for this thing called justice in a struggle that continues today.” And in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, she described how she “got a stroller’s eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called ‘good trouble.’”
It wasn’t only the politics of the civil rights movement that Shyamala adopted. She married a Jamaican immigrant Donald Harris, a fellow doctoral student studying economics, and proceeded to live her life straddling and participating in the Indian and Black cultures, while continuing to march and protest against injustice.
Bala revealed how Shyamala, a trained Indian Carnatic classical music singer, would listen to great jazz artists like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong when she visited her family in India.
“Music filled our home,” Harris wrote in her memoir “The Truths We Hold.” She recalled “falling asleep to the sounds of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane or Miles Davis.” Beyond music, Harris wrote about her parents organizing a study group to “devour” the works of Black writers and influential thinkers including Ralph Ellison, Carter G. Woodson and W.E.B. Du Bois.
Shyamala imbued a sense of immense history on her daughters. She taught them to embrace their Black heritage, even though she came to America with little exposure to this culture. And for that, Shyamala was a visionary, a woman before her time. It was as though she had a fisheye lens into the future that awaited her children.
It’s undeniable that Shyamala was a strong influence. We hear it in every momentous public address Kamala Harris makes. In her first speech as a senator, Harris acknowledged her gratitude “for all those upon whose shoulders we stand. For me it starts with my mother.” And, as she accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president, Harris again noted her mother’s influence — a mother who raised her two children on her own, who packed lunches, paid bills, helped with homework and took her daughters to church for choir practice.
The most important affirmation of her mother’s legacy is the self-confidence with which Kamala Harris occupies the national stage, claiming her past and her future. It comes from the ease and comfort Harris feels in her bi-racial skin — a testament to Shyamala’s parenting. “She raised us to be proud, strong, Black women,” Harris said in recognition of her mother’s values, “and she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage.”
Every time I hear about Shyamala Gopalan Harris, I’m filled with awe and a sense of longing. I wish I’d met her. I wish I’d known this woman, who, in Harris’ words, “was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.” Kamala Harris, for sure, is a very fortunate woman.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.