At Home Abroad: East and West in The House: The White House Part 2: The East
By Regina Costello
This New Year will soon find new guests in The House, with a very special one from the East – an Asian, Afro, Jamaican woman who was born in America. Kamala Devi Harris has already achieved many firsts in her life. Her most recent and most acclaimed first is that of Vice President of the United States, the most powerful country in the world.
This achievement will provide her with the wings to fly high, hopefully unscathed against the many odds facing both her and our country that will need to be tackled in the coming days and beyond. Her background is truly interesting. Her Indian grandfather fought for Indian independence from Great Britain as a government official, and her grandmother taught birth control to rural indigenous Indian women.
A Child of Immigration
Her parents, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan and Professor Donald Harris, immigrated to the United States, and in time, became champions in their own right: her mother in breast cancer research and her father a Professor of Economics at Stanford. To immigrate to America in the 1960s, particularly for blacks and Asians, was no small feat.
Kamala’s parents met at UC Berkeley, where their shared earnest passion for civil rights brought them together. They were part of an activist group that was to become the Afro American Association.
Kamala was introduced to a modern, forward thinking, socially aware environment from an early age. As a baby in a stroller, she attended protests and civil rights meetings with her parents. As children, she and her younger sister Maya, witnessed people finding the strength to stand up and fight for civil rights, which effectively are human rights, and should be automatically afforded to all mankind.
She had a tight relationship with her Indian grandfather, who likely taught her the importance of strength of character and perseverance. The significant career and social accomplishments of her immigrant parents were clearly pivotal markers for the sisters.
Additionally, to witness such heights met by her parents within an interracial marriage at a time when such partnerships were socially unacceptable to many, instilled in her the same character and grit evidenced in the lives of Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris. From an early age, Kamala and Maya started to devote their lives to advocacy and social justice.
Even as young teenagers, the thirteen-year-old Kamala, with her sister Maya, fought for the betterment of others. At that time, they were uncomfortable with a policy that forbade children from playing in the grass outside their apartment building. The sisters led a demonstration that resulted in changing that policy.
In high school, a friend told Kamala she was being molested by her stepfather. Concerned for her well-being, she confided in her mother and, as a result, Kamala’s family took her friend into their home and she lived with them. Their public service never stopped, and has remained paramount in their lives.
As the daughter of immigrants, the Vice President has a genuine understanding of the experience of immigrating to America; the difficulties with adapting to a different life in a new world and navigating the roadblocks in place in the paths of browns and blacks in this country. We truly are the products of our environment.
We see it in everyone, if we care to look. We see it in President Joe Biden and are probably more aware of his background because of our interest in Ireland. His Irish heritage, cultural traditions and family closeness clearly ground him, evidenced in frequent credits to his background.
He says, “I’ve been honored to have held a lot of titles. But I have always been and will always be the son of Kitty Finnegan.”
The Vice President remembers her mothers’ words of wisdom that spur her ambition each day, “Don’t sit around and complain about things, do something.” Thanking those on the campaign trail she said, “To the woman most responsible for my presence here today – my mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who is always in our hearts. When she came here from India at the age of 19, maybe she didn’t quite imagine this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.”
Kamala Means Lotus
The culture exposed to Vice President Harris from a very early age provides her with a wide lens, an open mind and an objective outlook. Her mother named her Kamala, meaning lotus, and also refers to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi and the empowerment of women.
Dealing with a hard blow as a child, she witnessed her parents’ divorce when she was seven years old and was subsequently raised by her single mother in a predominantly black, lower-middle-class neighborhood, attending school during the early years of integration. Shyamala was intent on celebrating the black and Jamaican ethnicities of Kamala and Maya by attending both a Black Baptist Church and a Hindu Temple.
Twenty years of public life has exposed the VP Harris to the reality of the diverse society that is the United States, and the difficulties facing so many on the fringes for too long. Kamala Harris started her adult life as a lawyer. Her personal philosophy and key choices in her career are a testament to real efforts in that direction.
Like her parents, she also is in an interracial marriage. She chose Doug Emhoff as her husband in recent years. Furthermore, she is also in an inter-religious marriage.
A Life of Firsts
Her first job after passing the bar was as assistant district attorney in Oakland, focusing on sex crimes. From there, she worked for the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, where she made a dent on teenage prostitution in the city by encouraging law enforcement to view the girls as victims of circumstance and not criminals.
She successfully ran for district attorney in San Francisco, where she won 56.5% of the vote, making her the first Black woman in California to secure this position. As D.A., the conviction rate jumped from 52% to 67%. She made decisions that felt right to her, and not to satisfy polls.
As California A.G., she set up the LGBTQ Hate Crimes Unit. With a futuristic inclusive philosophy, it is no surprise that her goals include effective management of the current pandemic, health care for all, climate change, stricter gun control and civil rights,
Vice President Harris has her work cut out for herself. As holds true for all mankind, she will at times likely stumble. But the innate tenacity and courage written into her DNA will provide her with the endurance necessary for the job at hand.
A quotation from her memoir, “The Truths We hold”, is apt in closing “We have so much more in common than what separates us. We need to paint a picture of the future in which everyone can see themselves and everyone is seen. A vibrant portrait of a vibrant United States, where everyone is treated with equal dignity and each of us has the opportunities to make the most of our own lives. That is the vision worth fighting for, born out of love of country.”
We can hope that, at least in part, some of her dreams become a reality and provide healing that is much needed in my home abroad.
Future U.S. Veep Kamala Harris is the child of international students – Study International Staff, 9 November 2020.
The Truths We Hold by Kamala Harris, 2019.
How Kamala Harris’s Immigrant Parents Found a Home, and Each Other, in a Black Study Group: Ellen Barry, The New York Times, 9/13/2020.
Kamala Harris, Vice President-Elect of the United States, Gregory Lewis McNamee. Encyclopedia Britannica.
What you need to know about Kamala Harris: A trailblazing prosecutor-turned-politician sits on the cusp of history. Catherine Kim and Zack Stanton. www.politico.eu
*Regina is a Graduate from the National University of Ireland, Galway and a Post Graduate from the National University of Ireland, Dublin. She is the former Curator of the Irish American Archives at the Western Reserve Historical Society, former Executive Director of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument Commission and former Executive Coordinator of the Northern Ohio Rose Centre. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Mayo Society of Greater Cleveland. She can be reached at [email protected]