She’s been dubbed “the female Obama” and not just because of her skin colour. There’s a purity and energy about Kamala Harris’ courage and resolve that is rare in a political landscape increasingly fuelled by divisiveness. Like Barack Obama she trained as a lawyer, and also like America’s first black President, her passion is to use the law to fight injustice wherever she finds it.
It’s a simple but powerful credo, which is why Kamala Harris is such a relatable figure. “Lawyers have a profound ability and responsibility to be a voice for the vulnerable and the voiceless,” she told her law school’s newspaper, and already this dynamic new Vice President is doing just that.
Kamala’s ethnic background may be unique in her new job, but as the daughter of immigrants she represents a great number of Americans. Add to this her gender – again unique for a VP, but reflecting more than half of the US population – and without even opening her mouth, the 56-year-old Californian is fulfilling her ideal. But while she appreciates the symbolic importance of her migrant parentage, Kamala describes herself as simply “an American” and has spoken about the frustration of politicians having to fit into gender and ethnicity boxes. “I am who I am,” she told a Washington Post reporter in 2019. “I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.”
As a little girl Kamala was one of thousands of black children who were part of a national desegregation experiment, bussed from their hometowns to achieve an integrated and better education away from segregated schooling. She knew she had to fight to be seen and heard, and you don’t have to look far to see where Kamala learned that steely determination.
“My mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was a force of nature and the greatest source of inspiration in my life,” Kamala posted on Instagram last year. “She taught my sister Maya and me the importance of hard work and to believe in our power to right what is wrong.”
Shyamala, who died aged 70 in 2009, was indeed impressive. Born in India, her father a senior civil servant, Shyamala was the oldest of four children. When she was eight India was granted independence from Britain, a topic of much discussion in her politically progressive home. “From both of my grandparents, my mother developed a keen political consciousness. She was conscious of history, conscious of struggle, conscious of inequities. She was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul,” writes Kamala in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold.
Shyamala graduated from the University of Delhi at 19, but she wanted more. With her father’s blessing she applied for a graduate program in Berkeley, California, and got in. The barely 155 cm (5ft 1in) Hindu girl in a sari had never been to the US before. But she was fearless. Shyamala achieved a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology, and was later acclaimed for her ground-breaking work in breast cancer research.
“My mother was expected to return to India after she completed her degree. Her parents had an arranged marriage. It was assumed my mother would follow a similar path. But fate had other plans,” Kamala explains in her memoir.
In 1962 Shyamala was at a civil rights rally where the speaker was a radical economics graduate who had recently emigrated from Jamaica. Donald Harris impressed Shyamala and he was equally smitten. They married the following year.
“Her marriage – and her decision to stay in the United States – were the ultimate acts of self-determination and love,” notes Kamala of the romanticism of her parents’ union. Kamala Devi was born the following year, and sister Maya Lakshmi two years later.
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