Kamala Harris and the inheritance from her mother

Shyamala Gopalan Harris with her daughters Kamala and Maya, outside their apartment on Milvia Street in Berkeley, Calif., in January 1970, after she separated from her husband Donald Harris. From then on, the trio was known as Shyamala and the girls., Harris writes in her new book “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey.”

In her memoir “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” California Sen. Kamala Devi Harris touches upon her personal journey — growing up in Oakland as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, as well as about rising through the ranks to become the District Attorney of San Francisco and later the chief law enforcement officer of the state of California, before serving as a senator.

The book is being called a “soft launch” for her bid for the 2020 presidential race. She doesn’t mince words as she shows her disdain for the policies of President Donald Trump. Neither does she shy away from projecting her as a progressive and a champion for everyday Americans.

But what remains a constant strain throughout the book is the influence her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, has had on Harris, her thought process and in shaping her career and her ideals.

Harris details what she inherited from her mother, and from her upbringing. “Though I miss her every day, I carry her with me wherever I go. I think of the battles she fought, the values she taught me, … There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter,” she writes.

Shyamala Gopalan Harris was a Tamilian from India, while her father Donald Harris was an African-American from Jamaica.

Pride in South Asian Roots Growing up bi-racial, there’s been a lot said about whether Harris identifies herself as a black American or an Indian-American. Though Harris has never shied away about speaking about her mother and her influence on her, there is a section of Indian-Americans who believe that Harris doesn’t identify herself as one of them. While Harris understandably identifies herself African-American in the political context, she is personally, and perhaps equally understandably, very Indian in her personal lifestyle, and is very close to her Indian extended family.

“My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots,” she writes. “Our classic Indian names harked back to our heritage, and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture,” she continues. “All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue — which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”

In the preface, Harris dedicates a paragraph on the meaning and the right pronunciation of her name. “First, my name is pronounced ‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark. It means ‘lotus flower,’ which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface white its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom.

But at the same time, she admits that she and her sister Maya were raised as black girls. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” she writes. “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.”

Interestingly, the only mention of Harris’ religion or faith comes early on in the book, where she describes her growing up years in Oakland, before they moved to Montreal. “On Sundays, our mother would send us off to the 23rd Avenue Church of God, piled with other kids in the back of Mrs. Shelton’s station wagon. My earliest memories of the teachings of the Bible were of a loving God, a God who asked us to ‘speak up for this who cannot speak for themselves’ and to ‘defend the rights of the poor and the needy.’ This is where I learned that ‘faith’ is a verb; I believe we must live our faith in action.”

Journey Across 7 Seas

In the first chapter Harris introduces us to her parents, her mother’s extended family, her sister, and her growing up years with her parents. She gives a glimpse of her mother’s life in India and of how hard it was for her parents to allow her to come to California for higher studies.

“My mother’s life began thousands of miles to the east, in southern India,” she writes. “Shyamala Gopalan was the oldest of four children — three girls and a boy. Like my father, she was a gifted student, and when she showed a passion for science, her parents encouraged and supported her.”

Harris then talks about her mother’s journey from Delhi to California. “She graduated from the University of Delhi at nineteen,” Harris says of her mother. “And she didn’t stop there.” She tell us that her mother applied to a graduate program at Berkeley, “a university she’d never seen, in a country she’d never visited.”

She continues: “It’s hard for me to imagine how difficult it must have been for her parents to let her go. Commercial jet travel was only just starting to spread globally. It wouldn’t be a simple matter to stay in touch. Yet, when my mother asked permission to move to California, my grandparents didn’t stand in the way. She was a teenager when she left home for Berkeley in 1958 to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology, on her way to becoming a breast cancer researcher.”

She then talks about how her parents met. “My mother was expected to return to India after she completed her degree,” she writes. “But fate had other plans. She and my father met and fell in love at Berkeley while participating in the civil rights movement. Her marriage — and her decision to stay in the United States — were the ultimate acts of self-determination and love.”

Harris then gives the readers a glimpse into their life. “My parents had two daughters together,” she writes. “My mother received her PhD at age twenty-five, the same year I was born. My beloved sister, Maya, came two years later,” she writes. “Family lore has it that, in both pregnancies, my mother kept working right up to the moment of delivery — one time, her water broke while she was at the lab, and the other while she was making apple strudel. (In both cases, knowing my mom, she would have insisted on finishing up before she went to the hospital).”

She goes on describe her days as a toddler. “Those early days were happy and carefree,” she writes. “Music filled our home. My mother loved to sing along to gospel — from Aretha Franklin’s early work to the Edwin Hawkins Singers,” she recalls. “She had won an award in India for her singing, and I loved hearing that voice.” She then informs the readers how her father cared about music as much as her mother. “He had an extensive Jazz collection, so many albums that they filled all the shelving against one of the walls. Every night, I would fall asleep to the sounds of Thelonious Monk, John Coltraine, or Miles Davis,” she writes.

But then things changed; her parents eventually separated. “But the harmony between my parents didn’t last,” she writes. “In time, things got harder. They stopped being kind to each other. I knew they loved each other very much, but it seemed they had become like oil and water.” By the time Harris was 5, she says that the bond between her parents “had given way under the weight of incompatibility.” Her parents separated shortly after her father took a job at the University of Wisconsin, and they divorced a few years later. “They didn’t fight about money,” she writes. “The only thing they fought about was who got the books.”

Recalling those tough days, she writes: “I’ve often thought that had they been a little older, more emotionally mature, maybe the marriage could have survived. But they were so young. My father was my mother’s first boyfriend.”

But Harris was aware that the divorce was hard on her parents. “I think, for my mother, the divorce represented a kind of failure she had never considered. Her marriage was as much an act of rebellion as an act of love. Explaining it to her parents had been hard enough. Explaining the divorce, I imagine, was harder. I doubt they ever said to her, ‘I told you so,’ but I think those words echoed in her mind regardless.”

Their father meanwhile remained a part of the sisters’ lives. “We would see him on weekends and spend summers with him in Palo Alto,” Harris writes. “But it was really my mother who took charge of our upbringing. She was the one most responsible for shaping us into the women we would become.”

Strong, Nurturing Support

She describes her mother as smart, tough, fierce, protective, generous, loyal, and funny. And she was extraordinary. “My mother was barely five foot one, but I felt like she was six foot two,” she writes. And Harris says, Shyamala Gopalan Harris had only two goals in life: to raise her two daughters and to end breast cancer. “She pushed us hard and with high expectations as she nurtured us. And all the while, she made Maya and me feel special, like we could do anything we wanted to if we put in the work.

And Harris attributes those qualities to her mother’s growing up years in India. “My mother had been raised in a household where political activism and civic leadership came naturally,” she writes. Shyamala Gopalan’s mother — Kamala and Maya’s grandmother — Rajam Gopalan, had never attended high school, Harris writes, “but she was a skilled community organizer. She would take in the women who were being abused by their husbands, and then she’d call the husbands and tell them they’d better shape up or she would take care of them. She used to gather village women together, educating them about contraception,” she writes.

Kamala Harris and the inheritance from her mother

Shyamala Gopalan, left, Harris at a civil rights march in Berkeley, California.

Kamala and Maya’s grandfather P.V. Gopalan had been part of the movement to win India’s independence.

“Eventually, as a senior diplomat in the Indian government, he and my grandmother had spent time living in Zambia after it gained independence, helping to settle refuges. He used to joke that my grandmother’s activism would get him in trouble one day. But he knew that was never going to stop her. From them, my mother learned that it was service to others that gave life purpose and meaning. And my mother, Maya and I learned the same.”

Along with the life lessons, Harris writes that Shyamala Gopalan inherited her mother’s strength and courage. “People who knew them knew not to mess with either,” she writes. “And from both 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.”

And it was this activism and sense of justice that Shyamala Gopalan Harris brought to the U.S. and which drove her to the Civil Rights Movement. And Harris got a toddlers-eye view of the movement. Since she was an infant, Harris says her parents, her environment, her upbringing helped shape her. “My parents often brought me in a stroller with them to civil rights marches,” she writes. “I have young memories of a sea of legs moving about, of the energy, shouts and chants. Social justice was an important part of family discussions.”

She shares a story her mother would enjoy recalling about the time when Harris was fussing as a toddler. “’What do you want?’ she asked, trying to soothe me. ‘Fweedom!’ I yelled back.”

Throughout the book, Harris makes several references to her mother, her sister Maya and her niece Meena.

There are times when she connects a memory to a certain policy-related decision she has had to make, or remembers her mother’s teachings when dealing with or trying to overcome a certain situation. We hear some of Shyamala Gopalan Harris’ favorite quotes: “Don’t let anybody tell you who you are. You tell them who you are” or “Focus on what’s in front of you and the rest will follow” or “You may be the first. Don’t be the last.”

At every juncture of her life, we see Harris going back to her mother. When she began working at the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, Harris is once again reminded of a life-lesson her mother shared with her. “It was my mother who had instilled that [what matters is how well you run the portion of the race that is yours] in me,” she writes. “My mother was a breast cancer researcher. Like her colleagues, she dreamed of the day we’d find a cure. But she wasn’t fixated on that distant dream; she focused on the work right in front of her. The work that would move us closer, day by day, year by year, until we crossed the finish line.”

Revisiting Old Memories

One of the important things writing this book helped Harris do was “sit with good memories that don’t always make it to the front of my mind.” Talking about the process of writing her book, she says: “When I was getting ready to write this book, I spent a good deal of time going through photo albums, reminiscing with Maya, and unpacking old boxes, including things my mother had saved. It’s been a blessing.”

She also got a chance to rummage through old things, old photographs. “Our mother loved to talk with her hands, and she was always using her hands — to cook, to clean, to comfort,” Harris writes.

“She was always busy. Work itself was something to value — hard work especially; and she made sure that we, her daughters, internalized that message and the importance of working with purpose.” Another important value she taught her kids, Harris says, was how to value all work, not just your own. Harris says that her mother saw the dignity in the work that society requires to function. “She believed that everyone deserved respect for the work they do, and that hard effort should be rewarded and honored.”

Kamala Harris and the inheritance from her mother

Kamala Harris and friends at their Howard University graduation. 

Another of her mother’s teachings: importance of a mentor.

Now, as a senator Harris says that when she travels across the country, she can relate to see how people are trying to make the voice heard, make a difference, with their kids, their babies in tow.

“When I travel our country, I see that optimism in the eyes of five-and seven- and ten-year-olds who feel a sense of purpose in being part of the fight. I see it, and feel it, in the energy of the people I meet. Yes, people are shouting. But they are doing it from a place of optimism. That’s why they’ve got their babies with them. That’s why my parents took me in a stroller to civil rights marches. Because as overwhelming as the circumstances maybe, they believe, as I do, that a better future is possible for us all.”

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