Lassi with Lavina / The Indian SCENE
For young Indian girls who were growing up in America in the ‘70s, there were few role models in political life that looked like them. The American president and vice-president were always white and always male. With President Obama’s inauguration, they finally got to see a minority family in the White House.
With the selection of Kamala Harris as Democratic nominee for vice president comes the unprecedented prospect of a woman and a minority in the second highest position in the land.
Harris, whose first name means ‘lotus’ in Sanskrit, is of mixed Indian and Jamaican heritage. “My mom and dad, like so many other immigrants, came to this country for an education. My mother from India and my dad from Jamaica. And the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s brought them together,” Harris shared with her supporters recently. “That spirit of activism is why my mother, Shyamala, would always tell my sister and me, “Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something.”
Harris certainly did something. She first became San Francisco’s district attorney, and then California’s attorney general. She went on to become the first Black and South Asian senator and then faced off several contenders to become presidential nominee Joe Biden’s choice for vice president in the upcoming presidential election.
Many Indian-Americans feel a great sense of pride in her accomplishments as the first Indian-American, Asian American and Black woman to be the Attorney General of California, and then first U.S. Senator of South Asian origin. In Harris’s memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” Shyamala and her Indian heritage are a formidable presence. Harris recalls, “My mother always said to me, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things; make sure you’re not the last.” When Harris took the stage at the virtual DNC, she spoke again about Shyamala.
“She came here from India at age 19 to pursue her dream of curing cancer. At the University of California-Berkeley, she met my father, Donald Harris, who had come from Jamaica to study economics,” said Harris. “They fell in love in that most American way: while marching together for justice in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In the streets of Oakland and Berkeley, I got a stroller’s-eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called ‘good trouble.’”
If social media is any indication, the message resonated. Wrote one Indian-American woman, “Definitely cried when Kamalaben talked about her mom. All but 5 feet tall. My mom is a short Gujarati immigrant. She cleaned many rooms in her life, she ran a motel while my dad worked, and she gave me opportunities she never had. Her mom and story is my mom and story!”
Monica Kumar from Arizona commented, “Kamala Harris spoke beautifully and authentically to her Indian heritage. It is hard to describe what it means to be able to vote for her and Biden in my first Presidential election since becoming an American citizen.”
A recent New York Times feature highlighted Harris’s formative experiences in India. At a charity event for an Indian NGO in 2018, she shared memories of her maternal grandfather and his friends, with whom she spent childhood summers in Chennai walking on the beach.
“I would hold his hand and I remember the stories that they would tell, and the passion with which they spoke about the importance of democracy, the passion that they had about the importance of having a democracy that spoke for the people and that was free of corruption, and that was about fighting for everyone and treating people like equals,” she said. “And as I reflect on those moments in my life that have had the most impact on who I am today, I wasn’t conscious of it at the time but it was those walks on the beach with my grandfather in Besant Nagar that had a profound impact on who I am today.”
Who is Kamala Harris today? A strong and determined woman poised to break barriers.
As Neha Dewan, National Director of South Asians for Biden said at a virtual event for South Asian women in politics, “Senator Harris has been trailblazer throughout her time in public office, and her selection as the Democratic nominee for Vice President has particular significance to both South Asian and Black women, who will be inspired to seek public office in unprecedented numbers in the future.”
She is also committed to strong relationships, family connections and having a joyful life. A superb cook, her Sunday family dinners with her husband Doug and her stepchildren (who call her “Momala”) are sacrosanct. In her memoir, there are photos of her as a child with her younger sister Maya in Madame Bovie’s ballet studio in Berkeley and of birthday parties with kindergarten friends; her best friend then remains one of her closest friends.
As Biden’s running mate, Harris is certainly off to a flying start in her famous Converse sneakers, setting her own path and energizing the Biden-Harris campaign.
“My daily challenge to myself is to be part of the solution, to be a joyful warrior in the battle to come,” she writes in her memoir. “Let’s not throw up our hands when it’s time to roll up our sleeves. Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever.”