Senator Kamala Harris started her life’s work young. She laughs from her gut, the way you would with family, as she remembers being wheeled through an Oakland, California, civil rights march in a stroller with no straps with her parents and her uncle. At some point, she fell from the stroller (few safety regulations existed for children’s equipment back then), and the adults, caught up in the rapture of protest, just kept on marching. By the time they noticed little Kamala was gone and doubled back, she was understandably upset. “My mother tells the story about how I’m fussing,” Harris says, “and she’s like, ‘Baby, what do you want? What do you need?’ And I just looked at her and I said, ‘Fweedom.’ ”
This past August, that same precocious child, now a member of the U.S. Senate, stood on a stage in a nearly empty auditorium flanked by American flags and accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president, making history as the first Black and Indian American woman to do so. A week later, flanked by those same flags, she delivered a speech designed to deflect attention from President Donald Trump’s own speech later that night at the Republican National Convention. “Justice,” she said force-fully, boring into the eyes of viewers as she defended the right of peaceful protesters to take to the streets after the recent shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Let’s talk about that. Because the reality is that the life of a Black person in America has never been treated as fully human. And we have yet to fulfil that promise of equal justice under law.” Rewatching that speech as I prepared for this interview, I wondered if her words would be enough to inspire hope in those who need it most. Depending on whom you ask, hope is either the territory of the naïve or the antidote to our shared pain, but for the last four years, hope has become increasingly elusive for the most vulnerable people in this country. So, as the senator and I log into our Zoom call, I have a lot of questions—and a few trust issues. I don’t sugarcoat my words: I start by asking what many of us would like to know. How can people who have only known the underside of this country’s boot trust her, another politician, to do the right thing? How will the people with the least visibility know that she sees them?
Harris leans toward the screen and tells me about her favourite way to greet people, learned from various cultures in Africa. “When you [are introduced] for the first time, the greeting is not ‘Pleased to meet you.’ The greeting is ‘I see you.’ I see you as a complete human being. At this moment in time, it is so critically important in our country for all people to be seen in their full selves, in a way that gives them the dignity they deserve.”
Dignity is a word she brings up often. She says she has been defending a person’s right to dignity from day one of her time in Washington. “I came to DC for orientation [in November 2016]. And then there was the inauguration, and the next day there was the Women’s March, where I spoke. And then I got on these committees. And then all these confirmation hearings for people like General [John F.] Kelly. Then right after that came the Muslim ban,” she says.
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