Kamala Harris: The many identities of the first woman vice-president

Kamala Harris savored the moment she became the first woman, and the first black and Asian American, to be vice-president-elect, with a very hearty laugh.

In a video posted to her social media, she shares the news with President-elect Joe Biden: “We did it, we did it, Joe. You’re going to be the next president of the United States!”

Her words are about him but the history of the moment is hers.

Just over a year ago, as the senator from California hoping to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency, she launched a potent attack on Joe Biden over race during a debate. Many thought it inflicted a serious blow on his ambitions. But by the end of the year, her campaign was dead and it was Mr. Biden who returned the 56-year-old to the national spotlight by putting her on his ticket.

“It is a big reversal of fortune for Kamala Harris,” says Gil Duran, a communications director for Ms Harris in 2013 and who has critiqued her run for the presidential nomination.

“Many people didn’t think she had the discipline and focus to ascend to a position in the White House so quickly… although people knew she had ambition and star potential. It was always clear that she had the raw talent.”

What she has demonstrated from the moment she took the national stage with her pitch for the presidency – is grit.

The many identities of Kamala Harris

Born in Oakland, California, to two immigrant parents – an Indian-born mother and Jamaican-born father – her parents divorced when she was five and she was primarily raised by her Hindu single mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a cancer researcher, and civil rights activist.

She grew up engaged with her Indian heritage, joining her mother on visits to India, but Ms Harris has said that her mother adopted Oakland’s black culture, immersing her two daughters – Kamala and her younger sister Maya – within it.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” she wrote in her autobiography The Truths We Hold. “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

Her biracial roots and upbringing mean she embodies and can engage with and appeal to many American identities. Those parts of the country which have seen rapid demographic change, enough change to alter a region’s politics, see an aspirational symbol in her.

But it was her time at Howard University, one of the nation’s preeminent historically black colleges and universities, which she has described as among the most formative experiences of her life.

Lita Rosario-Richardson met Kamala Harris while at Howard in the 1980s when students would gather in the Yard area of the campus to hang out and discuss politics, fashion, and gossip.

“I noticed she had a keen sense of argumentation.”

They bonded over an aptitude for energetic debate with campus Republicans, their experience growing up with single mothers, even just both being the Libra star sign. It was a formative era politically too.

“Reagan was president at the time and it was the apartheid era and there was a lot of talk about divestiture with ‘trans Africa” and the Martin Luther King holiday issue,” Ms. Rosario-Richardson says.

“We know that being descendants of enslaved people and people of color coming out of colonization, that we have a special role and having an education gives us a special position in society to help effect change,” she explains – it was a philosophy and a call to action that was part of the university experience Ms. Harris lived.

She returned to address students at Howard in 2017 and took them on a journey from the Ferguson race protests of 2014 to the halls of Capitol Hill in just one sentence:

“You students have joined the fight for justice – you protested. From the streets of Ferguson to the halls of the United States Congress, you have lived the words of James Baldwin, ‘There is never a time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.'”

But Ms. Harris also operates with ease in predominantly white communities. Her early years included a brief period in Canada. When Ms. Gopalan Harris took a job teaching at McGill University, Ms Harris and her younger sister Maya went with her, attending school in Montreal for five years.

Ms. Harris says she’s always been comfortable with her identity and simply describes herself as an “American”.

She told the Washington Post in 2019, that politicians should not have to fit into compartments because of their color or background. “My point was: I am who I am. I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it,” she said.