The greatest democracy on earth took over 250 years to elect a female to be the Vice President. And, justifiably so, the first woman, who has made the cut, breaking the barriers and the glass ceilings that prevented any female from being elected to the office, is none other than the first time Senator from California, an first Indian American and Black American candidate, Kamala Harris. When Joe Biden, President-Elect gives his first speech to Congress, his first words promise to be memorable: “Madame Vice-President”.
The historic 2020 election, held among a pandemic that has impacted almost every aspect of our lives, did not deter the nearly 150 million Americans from casting their ballots, the highest ever voter turn out in any US election, helped win Biden-Harris ticket to the White House on November 3rd, 2020. With millions of votes still to be counted, the Biden-Harris ticket has received the most votes ever – more than 75 million – in the history of America’s elections.
When Kamala Devi Harris enters 1 Observatory Circle, the official home of the Vice President in January 2021, she will have achieved many firsts: The first woman, the first person of Indian descent, the first African-American, the first with Jamaican heritage, the first daughter of immigrants to hold that office
Joe Biden, who has been declared the winner of the 2020 US presidential election by the media, marveling at her string of firsts, said on Saturday: “Once again, America has bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice. It’s long overdue.”
Her multi-racial background gives her a degree of identity fluidity to navigate American society riven by race and ethnicity. Harris’ lightning fast political rise and her triumph marks a high point for women of color in politics at an anxious time in American society. Harris, 55, is a California senator, the daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. She is also a former prosecutor, whose grilling of Trump’s appointees and unflappable cool has transported her to Democratic Party stardom.
Harris won her first election in 2003 and became San Francisco’s district attorney. In 2010, she became the first woman of color to be elected California’s attorney general. Harris was elected to the US Senate in 2016. The historic nature of Harris’ candidacy has underlined her every stump speech, and Harris handled the pressure with a certain confidence that comes from years of tough questioning and tons of preparation.
Surrounded by the unmistakable aura of a historic campaign, the Harris candidacy has had some remarkable moments since August. First came Harris’ introduction to America, during the Democratic National Convention. There, Harris framed the election as a race that hinges, among other things, on the fighting spirit that her mother taught her.
“There’s another woman, whose name isn’t known, whose story isn’t shared. Another woman whose shoulders I stand on. And that’s my mother. She’d say, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’” has become Harris’ favorite pull out on her mother Shyamala Gopalan, a woman who paved the way for Harris’ path-breaking candidacy.
Shyamala Gopalan came to the US from India at age 19 to pursue her dream of curing cancer. At the University of California Berkeley, she met Donald Harris who had come from Jamaica to study economics. “They fell in love in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
In all her best moments of political oratory, Harris finds ways of weaving in echoes of her mother’s fight song and the civil rights movement, just like she did during her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. The Shyamala Gopalan stamp on Kamala Harris’ candidacy is at once powerful and unmistakable. Harris grew up between Oakland and Berkeley in California and spent time in college towns in the Midwest before attending college on the US East Coast. Harris’ father, in an essay, describes his elder child Kamala Harris as “ever the adventurous and assertive one”.
Harris is the embodiment of the American dream with the amalgam of all those unique identities and adding to that her White Jewish husband, Douglas Emhoff, and step-daughters to complete the American mosaic.
“Years from now, this moment will have passed. And our children and our grandchildren will look in our eyes and ask us: Where were you when the stakes were so high?” Harris said at the Democratic National Convention in August. “They will ask us, what was it like? And we will tell them. We will tell them, not just how we felt. We will tell them what we did.”
Born in the US to immigrants, cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan from India and economics professor Donald Harris from Jamaica, Harris has leapt in a generation to a position that puts her a heartbeat away from the presidency. Harris wrote in her memoir, “The Truths We Hold”, that she was raised in “a place where people believed in the most basic tenet of the American Dream: that if you worked hard and do right by the world, your kids will be better of than you were”.
While the African-American identity became the dominant one and, in fact, the one that boosted her chances to the get the vice presidential nomination, Harris wrote: “Our classical Indian names harked back to our heritage and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture. “My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots. “I was also very close to my mother’s brother, Balu, and her two sisters, Sarala and Chinni (whom I called Chittis, which means ‘younger mother’ (in Tamil),” she recalled.
In her memoir, Harris wrote that the lesson she inherited from her mother that “it was service to others that gave life purpose and meaning” came from her grandmother Rajam, who had not completed high school but was a fiery protector of victims of domestic abuse.
In her victory speech on Saturday night, she said of her mother: “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.”