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.”
On the eve of her taking over as the path-breaking first Indian American vice president, Kamala Harris assured her fellow Americans from the continent celebrating her victory that she will ensure a pathway is open for the community – and that is a lesson she learnt from her mother.
She said at a celebration by Asian Americans on Jan. 19, “My mother Shyamala Gopalan arrived in the United States from India, she raised my sister Maya and me to know that though we may be the first, we should not be the last. And I’ve carried that lesson with me throughout my career.”
The Asian American Pacific Islander Ball is one of the traditional galas held around the inauguration ceremony and this year’s events were held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Asian Ball held a special significance for the community this time as one of their own was becoming the vice president, the second most powerful position in the nation. Americans of Asian origin expressed their joy and congratulated the community for contributing to her election.
Performances and speeches by Asian American entertainers were the highlight of the event which also featured members of Congress and community leaders.
Harris said, “Your continued faith in me has brought me to this moment. When I accepted the nomination to be your vice president, I did so, fully-committed to realizing the vision of a stronger, more united America that provides an opportunity for all.”
The pan-Asian event on the theme “Breaking Barrier” was sponsored by the Indian American Impact Fund, better known as just IMPACT, which aims to produce more political leaders from the community, and RUN AAPI, a youth organization.
IMPACT co-founder Raj Goyal was jubilant about the rapid rise of someone with Indian heritage to be the vice president.
“We never knew how quickly we may see a ‘desi’ at the national level. When I was elected to the Kansas legislature in 2006, it was unimaginable. We’ve come so far in such a short period of time,” Gopal said.
The other co-founder, Deepak Raj, said that Harris had been at the founding of IMPACT and has been a “trailblazer for the community.”
Usually people wear formal clothing like tuxedos and gowns or national dresses, but everyone was dressed informally for the virtual event.
Hollywood Indian American actor Kal Penn joked, “I don’t know how everybody else is dressed, since we can’t really see each other until we see each other. But I am wearing a hoodie. I just want everybody to know that this is my tuxedo for 2021 for the inaugural.”
When “my parents came here didn’t really see folks who look like us on TV or in sports or in politics,” he said.
Therefore, Harris’ election has been an emotional moment and “there’s been a lot of good cry. You know what I mean? Like a lot of good inspirational cries,” he said.
Hip hop artist Raja Kumari performed a number that melded rap and hip-hop with taals and swaras. Bangladeshi American singer Ari Afsar, who performed in the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” also sang.
The founder of Indiaspora, an international community network, M.R. Rangaswami, said he had met her when she was the San Francisco public prosecutor and “seen her grow from strength to strength” and now she is going to be the new vice president in a “historic administration.”
Neera Tanden, who will be a member of the cabinet as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, said, “For many in our community, there is so much to be proud of. Not only can we celebrate an incredibly diverse cabinet, but we can also celebrate the fact that we have the first vice president-elect who is from Asian descent. I am incredibly proud to serve alongside Kamala Harris”
IMPACT executive director Neil Makhija said, “Our community turned out in record numbers. We really made our voices heard. And we changed the course of history” with the Biden-Harris election.
He said the Asian members of Congress at the event, who included those of Indian, Chinese and Korean descent, “are some of our luminaries, they are role models. They showed us the meaning of service.”
Representative Raja Krishnamoorthi echoed the community’s excitement at the election of Harris. Representative Ro Khanna said, “I can’t stress what an amazing moment this is for our community, and frankly, for a multiracial democracy in America.”
Representative Pramila Jayapal said that she was excited to see “the first woman, the first South Asian American, and the first black American to ever be elected to this position of public trust.”
The work of Asians who contributed to the Biden-Harris election though financial contributions, helping with the campaign and going house to house to ask for votes was mentioned by Representative Ami Bera.
“I am so grateful that we got this right,” said Hollywood actress Sheetal Seth about the election of Harris and Biden. TV actor Sendhil Ramamurthy said, “We made a difference,” as he recalled the campaign work of the Asian community to get the votes out.
Pakistani American comedian-actor Kumail Nanjiani said that after the alienation felt by people like him and his family, finally his mother “feels proud to call America home.”
“I’m excited to see if it shows that people who look like me and my family, who sound like me and my family, who have names like me and my family, that America is our home, because the new administration sees us as belonging here too,” he added.