From California to the White House: Kamala Harris

By Trudy Ann Taylor

This has been a most challenging year, and for some it has also been filled with grief and sadness. COVID-19 will never be forgotten; we will remember this period in our history for generations to come. In the midst of the pandemic, there was hope, admiration, respect, and moments of celebration. It came when Joseph Biden, 77 – made history himself as the oldest president-elect in US history and thus his running mate, Kamala D. Harris, will become the first female person of color to serve in the office of vice-president of the United States, thereby accomplishing another first.

A daughter of immigrants, Kamala Harris was born to an Indian mother and a Jamaican father 56 years ago. Donald J. Harris met Shyamala Gopalan in the fall of 1962 at the University of California, at Berkley, fell in love and they married the following year. When they first met, her parents hosted weekly study groups to discuss works by black authors, and grass-roots organizers, from Malcolm X to Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement in Africa. Inn and article by Ellen Barry of The New York Times, Baron Meghnad Desai, 80, recalls Ms. Gopalan as a passionate debater. “She was fiery and radical, but not Marxist in any way.” While still in her stroller Kamala was pushed to various protests and marches. Her parents divorced when she was five, and with Harris mother having no relatives in the U.S., saw the Black community in Oakland as her family and remained in the community. Ms. Gopalan worked hard to provide for her young children and had high expectations for them. The young family received tremendous support from the community.  Ms. Dashiell, a sociology professor who attended the weekly discussions, said, “I don’t mean financial support. They surrounded the children.” 

Ms. Gopalan was introduced to Regina Shelton who rented the family an apartment upstairs from her day care center. When Ms. Gopalan worked late, Harris and her sister Maya would either sleep at Mrs. Shelton’s or her daughters would run upstairs to tuck in the girls. She was a kind and caring woman. She would take the girls to Baptist Church and in the basement of their apartment building Harris learned about Black leaders such as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and George Washington Carver. She and her sister studied the arts at Rainbow Sign, a Black cultural center. These early experiences shaped her childhood and had a significant impact on her.

Harris attended a majority white high school in Montreal and then the prestigious Howard University in 1982. During her time at Howard, drug use and drug market operations ran rampant near the college. It was partly due to these conditions that Harris decided to become a prosecutor. Ms. Rosario, Harris’s former debate mentor, recalls asking her if that is the route she wanted to pursue. Ms. Rosario remembers thinking, “She did it because she really believed she could make a difference.”

Harris went on to earn an undergraduate degree from Howard University and a law degree from the University of California, Hastings, and began her career in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. In 2003, at age 38, she became the District Attorney of the City and County of San Francisco at which she started a program that gives first-time drug offenders the chance to earn a high school diploma and find employment.  

During her tenure, she also prosecuted transnational gangs that trafficked in guns, drugs and human beings, protected the affordable care act, helped win marriage equality for all Californians, defended California’s landmark climate change law and won a $25 billion settlement for California homeowners hit by the foreclosure crisis.  After completing two terms as District Attorney of San Francisco, she was elected the first African American and first woman to serve as California’s Attorney General. As DA, Harris worked very hard to protect the vulnerable people of the state and held corporations accountable for their actions. It is evident that Kamala Harris has much of her mother’s passion, work ethics and a desire to help others. Sadly, Ms. Gopalan died in 2009 at the age of 71.

Mrs. Shelton was such a positive influence and a tremendous help in their lives that when Kamala Harris took office to become California’s first female Black Attorney General, she asked to be sworn in using Mrs. Shelton’s bible. Again, she made history and was sworn in as a U.S. Senator for California in 2017, becoming the second African American woman and first South Asian-American Senator. As Senator she fought for the rights of all communities in California; reformed the broken criminal justice system; implemented and co-sponsored legislation to raise wages for all Americans; supported veterans and military families; addressed the pandemic of substance abuse and expanded access to childcare for working families.

Ms. Opal Lee, 94, remembers paying a poll tax when she first went to vote. She along with millions of us is excited about the inauguration. “I just must go”, she says. “I want to be able to tell my great-great-grandchildren how it felt for a woman to be vice-president.” It will certainly be unforgettable, and the world will be watching.

Regardless of your political affiliation, race, nationality, or gender, one cannot help but admire Kamala Harris’s poise and brilliance. She is an inspiration to all of us. What an exciting time we live in. Perhaps Harris never in her wildest dreams thought that she would be the first woman and a woman of color to become the soon to be vice president of the United States. Her story is proof of what can be accomplished with education, hard work and a burning desire to make a difference and enjoy what you do.  

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