- Shyamala Gopalan broke barriers, challenged orthodoxies and gave us Kamala Harris. We’ll take it from here.
Eyes brimming with tears and emotions I can’t fully explain, I could envision Shyamala Gopalan Harris beaming with pride from heaven, as millions watched her daughter Sen. Kamala Devi Harris accept the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nomination on August 19, 2020.
It felt like her mother’s joy and blessings for Kamala could be seen as the sky was lit with a meteor shower on the night of August 11 when Kamala was chosen to be the vice presidential candidate. Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s fortitude, ingenuity and tough-love upbringing have given us a principled, fearless fighter in Kamala who joined presidential nominee Joe Biden on the Democratic Party’s 2020 ticket to save America, which despite all its flaws, as President Reagan described “the last, best hope of man on earth.”
How did the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica come to ignite a movement to save this great nation and join President Obama to inspire us to action from the abject hopelessness we have come to feel? As her sister Maya says, to know Kamala, you have to know their mother. I am never tired of watching this video and find myself often being in awe of what an incredible woman their mother was and how seemingly impossible Kamala’s story is that brought her to this historic moment. I know today, now more than ever, why Kamala often says “my mother was all of 5’ tall but if you ever met her you would think she was 7’ tall.”
Shyamala Gopalan’s life story is remarkable in so many ways because of the series of unconventional events and hardships that had to be overcome before we could witness the electrifying acceptance speech of her daughter. Even in the mid-80’s in India, it wasn’t acceptable for unmarried young women to go abroad for higher education. But thankfully for us in the late 50’s, Kamala’s maternal grandfather P.V. Gopalan made a bold move and allowed his unmarried 19-year old daughter, Shyamala Gopalan, to pursue higher education in the U.S.
Kamala’s progressive grandfather believed in his daughter’s abilities and supported her academic journey, but also wanted her to be independent and told her that she would have to fend for herself financially after her first year of studies. He had been involved in India’s freedom struggle and Kamala’s grandmother Rajam, a passionate activist, had taught women about contraception when these topics were beyond taboo.
Given her own list of firsts and the trailblazers in her family, it is not surprising that Kamala chose her Secret Service code to be “pioneer.” Her mother was a courageous pioneer in coming to this country at 19, earning a PhD, engaging in activism, marrying a Black man during the Civil Rights Movement, and as an immigrant woman of color, single mother in the 60s raised two bi-racial daughters while working as a breast cancer researcher. You get the picture.
Over the last four decades, many Indian women came to this country as young brides or students with uncles or aunties to contact and had a nascent Indian community to help get acclimatized to a new culture and a country. When Shyamala Gopalan got off the plane in the late 50’s, she would have none of that, and very few actually looked like her. None of this stopped a brave Shyamala who went about with a singularity of purpose in the pursuit of her PhD and diligent work to find a cure for breast cancer and raise her two daughters as strong Black women.
Grateful to Black Community
Over the past few months, South Asians have been made to realize that we are standing on the shoulders of Black people who fought in the Civil Rights Movement. But we have yet another reason to be incredibly grateful to the Black community — they embraced Shyamala Gopalan with love and support that would allow her, along with the help of Mrs. Shelton, (her second mother, as Kamala fondly recalls) raise her two daughters. I implore the immigrant Indian American community to walk in Shyamala Gopalan’s shoes for a moment and appreciate her amazing story as Kamala carries her legacy along with those of her grandparents who showed her activism, civic leadership and public service can lead to profound change.
When we leave our birth countries and choose another to make our lives, we also adopt one another’s children symbolically, because it does take a village. Our children are indeed children of the community; they don’t just belong to the biological parents. We cheer on the children through their accomplishments and offer support when they have challenges as they refer to the elders in the community as uncles and aunties.
As an Indian American, I feel I can endearingly refer to Kamala’s mother as Shyamala Auntie even though I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet her. We don’t need to know Kamala or Shyamala Gopalan personally to rally behind Kamala as she is a daughter of our community who was raised as a proud, Black woman because her mother knew that’s how the world would see her daughters. But she ensured her daughters fully appreciated and experienced their Indian roots and extended Indian family.
From the very first time I read about Kamala, the story of her mother left an indelible mark in my heart as I remembered the challenges of adjusting to life in the U.S. with all the communication and conveniences of adapting to immigrant life in the U.S that were already established and the immigrant community in place to help me. Being on Kamala’s presidential campaign trail, I found myself asking if one of our children ever reached this pinnacle of accomplishment wouldn’t the community show their support for her symbolically and financially and through mobilizing support?
For my part, I’d like to say “Don’t worry Shyamala Auntie, we have Kamala’s back.”
Please join and invite your networks to our Facebook Group Indian Americans for Biden-Harris.
Anu Kosaraju is cofounder of ‘Indian Americans for Biden-Harris’ and a community organizer partnering with several grassroots groups to mobilize Indian Americans who are the swing vote in 2020 given their high numbers in battleground states.