- As she sets out to keep her tryst with destiny, it will form a significant part of the larger Indian American story that began in 1790.
In a historic move, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, Joseph R. Biden, has chosen a woman of color, Kamala D. Harris, as his running mate. The choice of Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican Black father and a Hindu Indian mother, breaks many glass ceilings in the annals of American politics. Her candidacy, if fruitful, which puts her a heartbeat away from the presidency, couldn’t be more meaningful and symbolic at a time when the United States is convulsed in racial issues.
It is indeed a quick turnaround in the political fortunes of Harris, when a little over a year ago she entered the presidential primary campaign with a dramatic flourish and a well-founded promise, only to quickly burn out. At her first campaign event when she addressed a mind-blowing 20,000-strong crowd in her hometown, Oakland, California, many thought she was a formidable candidate to win the nomination.
Even her eye-catching performance in the primary debates, particularly in the one in which she stumped Joe Biden on the issue of bussing black children to integrate schools, by declaring “I was that little girl” who benefited from it, the expectations of her candidacy went through the roof. But following that debate her primary campaign inexplicably went south, perplexing even seasoned political pundits.
In what may have been a strategic move, however, Harris quickly dropped out of the primaries in December last year, well before the Iowa Caucuses, possibly to position herself as a viable vice-presidential candidate, which apparently has paid off. She did not remain in the race to test the real waters, lest she should burn any (more) bridges with the likely winner. She would be, after all, a strong VP candidate for any eventual nominee. She may have probably relied on what her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris — the source of her “foundational wisdom” — told her early in her political career: “Focus on what’s in front of you and the rest will follow.”
While many Indian Americans do not necessarily identify her as one of their own, possibly because her Black identity dominates her political profile, she has no qualms about her own Indian American identity, raised as she was by her single mother, who was as Indian as sambar, a staple in their Tamilian home. When this writer interviewed Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist, in 2003 at her Oakland, California home, when Harris was running for San Francisco District Attorney, she described how Kamala and (her sister) Maya were just a couple of Indian kids at home, with their fondness for Indian clothes and food, particularly idli, vada, sambar being Kamala’s favorites.
In her memoir, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” Harris writes eloquently about the central influence of her mother in her life and career choices. “There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all,” Harris writes, referring to the courage of 19-year-old Indian girl who moved to America for studies, at a time when it was mostly unheard of; who defied all her traditions and culture to marry a black man and had the courage to walk out of it with two small children when it didn’t work out.
But Harris owes her mother a lot more than multicultural upbringing and conferring an unapologetic sense of identity. She inherits from her mother audacious idealism, purpose and ambition. In that respect, Harris has considerable pedigree. Her maternal grandfather was deeply involved in India’s movement against colonial rule, tutored as he was in British liberalism, which was peculiar to his generation of Indians fighting the British. And Harris credits her maternal grandmother for the crusading civic spirit that both her mother and she inherited.
Apart from periodic visits to her grandparents, uncles and aunts in Tamil Nadu, Harris was rooted in Indian culture all through her childhood. In her memoir, Harris writes: “My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots … we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture. All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue (Tamil) – which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”
It is no exaggeration to contend that Kamala Harris’ historic journey to being a step away from the White House wouldn’t have been possible if it was not for her mother’s vision, her understanding of the racial dynamics of America, and her clear-eyed view of the role identity plays in the life of her multiracial children. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls,” Harris writes in her memoir, alluding to the American racial reality that one-percent of blackness submerges all other identities. “She was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women,” Harris adds.
As Harris sets out to keep her tryst with destiny, realizing the dreams from her mother, it will form a significant part of the larger Indian American story that began in Massachusetts in 1790 when the first recorded Indian, the “Man from Madras,” arrived in America as part of the crew of the East India Company to serve as a household servant. Now, a woman whose origin story can also be traced to Madras, could well be a heartbeat away from the White House.
Sunil Adam is the editor and publisher of americankahani.com.