By The SATimes Team
On Saturday, Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first woman vice president of the United States. Born to Jamaican father and an Indian mother, Harris is a former attorney general of California. She also becomes the first person of Indian origin to hold the national office in the United States.
“This election is about so much more than @JoeBiden or me. It’s about the soul of America and our willingness to fight for it. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Let’s get started,” the newly elected Vice President tweeted.
Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born in Chennai and moved to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree at University of California Berkeley. “When my mother Shyamala [Gopalan] stepped off a plane in California as a 19-year-old, she didn’t have much in way of belongings but she carried with her lessons from home, including ones she’d learned from her parents,” she said.
Harris’ mother raised her daughters with the understanding the world would see them as Black women, Harris has said, and that is how she describes herself today. She attended Howard University, one of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, and pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s first sorority created by and for Black women. She campaigned regularly at HBCUs and tried to address the concerns of young Black men and women eager for strong efforts to dismantle systemic racism.
Harris has a track record of shattering glass ceilings. She served as San Francisco’s first female district attorney and was California’s first woman of color to be elected attorney general.
Her background in criminal justice could help the Biden administration tackle the issues of racial equality and policing after the country was swept by protests this year. She is expected to be a top adviser on judicial nominations.
Harris, who developed a deep fundraising network during her Senate and White House bids, has been instrumental to Biden’s raking in record sums of money in the closing months of the campaign. Her selection sparked a burst of excitement in the Democratic base and among the party’s donors.
Harris juggled her running mate duties with her day job in the Senate. Befitting her background as a prosecutor, she was a deft cross-examiner of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett at Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearing in October, weaving Biden’s campaign message on healthcare and climate change into her line of questioning.
As the Senate’s only Black woman, Harris emerged this year as a leading voice on racial justice and police reform after Minneapolis police killed African-American man George Floyd in May. She marched with protesters on the streets of Washington and won over some liberal skeptics.
Harris regularly describes her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, as the most important influence on her life. A breast cancer researcher from India who had a powerful presence despite her five-foot stature, she died of colon cancer in 2009. Donald Harris, Kamala’s father, is a retired leftist Stanford economics professor from Jamaica who studied issues such as income inequality but had less of an impact on her life after the couple divorced when she was a child.
Gopalan was the precocious daughter of an Indian diplomat and a women’s rights activist in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu. After graduating from the University of Delhi at age 19, she moved to Berkeley to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology, having never set foot in the U.S. before. Donald Harris also excelled at a young age, graduating from the University College of the West Indies in Jamaica before coming to Berkeley.
The two didn’t meet in the classroom but amid the protests that convulsed campus in the 60’s. On Sundays, they gathered with a group of like-minded students to discuss the black writers overlooked by the university curriculum and debate about politics, decolonization and activism.
The young couple married while still in school. At age 25, she earned her Ph.D. from Berkeley and gave birth to Kamala in Oakland, working up until the moment her water broke, according to the senator’s memoir.
Harris and Gopalan threw themselves into the civil rights movement, bringing a young Kamala to protests in a stroller. Gopalan met Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke at Berkeley in 1967. Kamala also visited far-flung family in India and Jamaica as she grew up, getting her first taste of the broader world.
Her parents separated after Donald Harris took a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Gopalan filed for divorce in December 1971, when Kamala was 7, according to court records, and won custody of her daughters in June 1973. “They didn’t fight about money,” Kamala wrote. “The only thing they fought about was who got the books.”
Kamala remembers visiting her grandparents, a diplomat and a women’s rights activist, in India, and shared about it on Instagram.
She wrote in the caption: “When I was a young girl visiting my grandparents in India, I’d join my grandfather and his buddies on their morning walk along the beach as they would talk about the importance of fighting for democracy and civil rights. Those walks made me who I am today.”
Harris has visited India several times including in 2018 after the death of her mother. She is very much in touch with her aunts whom she even mentioned in her nomination and campaign speeches while drawing the connect with supporters about her roots.
Her mother’s sister Chennai-based Sarala Gopalan was closely following the election news. “We were glued to television and the whole family was ecstatic when the news broke,” Sarala Gopalan said when asked how the family reacted when her niece was announced as the U.S. Vice-President-elect.
“She last came with her sister Maya soon after their mother passed away. It was my sister’s wish that her ashes should be immersed in Chennai and they made a trip for that,” Dr. Gopalan said. “We are overjoyed that she has scripted history,” said Dr. Gopalan.
“Kamala has largely been inspired by her mother. My sister always had it in her that she should go on to achieve big things, and this is what I feel Kamala too has taken after,” she said.
Harris has spoken about the bond she shared with her grandfather P.V. Gopalan. “If we’re a family of strong women, the credit goes to my father P.V. Gopalan. In the 1950s, when my sister Shyamala secured a scholarship to study in the U.S., he immediately encouraged her and asked her to go. Other families would have been hesitant in those times to send an 18-year-old girl alone to study abroad,” Dr. Gopalan recalled.
Dr. Gopalan was the head of the Department of Gynaecology at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education (Chandigarh) and later went on to work with the Voluntary Health Services (VHS) hospital in Chennai.
“We are hopeful of flying to the U.S. for her swearing-in ceremony. Even when Kamala was sworn-in as a Senator, we were all there. Since my sister is not around now, we ensure that Kamala always has the rest of her family present during every major milestone,” she said.
From the moment the California Sen. Kamala Harris officially announced her campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential race on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, no one has spent more time at the politician’s side than her younger sister, Maya. And for good reason: the 52-year-old was the 2020 hopeful’s campaign chairwoman, all the way up until she dropped out of the race on December 3, 2019.
“I think most people who know Maya will tell you she’s one of the smartest people they know,” Kamala told Politico. “The fact that she has volunteered to work on this campaign at such a high level and she’s exactly who she’s always been—she works around the clock and she’s probably the hardest, if not one of the hardest working people on the campaign—I feel very blessed.”
Since the day Biden selected Harris as his running mate the spotlight fell also on Kamala Harris’s husband Douglas Emhoff who has been a fixture on the campaign trail.
Born in Brooklyn, New York and a graduate of University of Southern California’s law school, Emhoff is currently a litigator and partner at DLA Piper Law Firm, where he works out of both their California and D.C. offices with a specialty in entertainment and intellectual property law.
The 55-year-old—who was born just seven days before his wife, also 55, on October 13—has two kids with his ex-wife, Kerstin. According to a March 2018 Vogue article about Harris, his son Cole is a graduate of Colorado College, while his younger daughter Ella studies at Parsons School of Design. The two affectionately call their stepmother “Momala” and, according to THR, she wore Converse and brought cookies when she first met them.