Jamaican, Tamil descent: Who is Kamala Harris, Joe Biden’s VP candidate

Kamala Harris, 55, was announced as Biden’s vice presidential candidate on last Tuesday

New Delhi(CNN)In 1958, Shyamala Gopalan arrived in Berkeley, California, after traveling thousands of miles from her family to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology. 

Gopalan was a precocious 19-year-old student. She had already graduated early from the University of Delhi, but the trip to California marked her first time out of India, where her parents and three siblings lived.

She was alone.

Fortunately for Gopalan, she had chosen to study at a campus that was about to become the counterculture capital of the United States. There, she found a home within the Bay Area’s vibrant Black community, which welcomed her with open arms. 

Gopalan became an active civil rights crusader, while she undertook her studies. She met her first love in the movement, a Jamaican economics student named Donald Harris. They married and had two daughters together, Maya and her older sister, Kamala, who was announced Tuesday as the presumptive Democratic nominee for vice president.

“From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to the Black community,” Harris wrote of her mother in her 2019 autobiography, “The Truths We Hold.” 

“In a country where she had no family, they were her family — and she was theirs.”

Gopalan and Donald Harris divorced when the children were young, but she would continue to be active in the civil rights movement. Kamala Harris wrote that her mother was acutely aware she was raising two girls that the general public would assume were Black, not Black and Indian.

Harris credits her mother, who died in 2009, as one of her most important influences in her life who, along with others, inspired her to go into politics. 

But while Gopalan’s sense of civic duty may have found new purpose in Berkeley, it was forged in India.

Gopalan’s mother and Harris’ grandmother, Rajam Gopalam, was an outspoken community organizer. Rajam’s husband, P.V. Gopalam, was an accomplished Indian diplomat.

“My mother had been raised in a household where political activism and civic leadership came naturally,” Harris wrote in her book.

“From both of 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.” 

A young Kamala Harris is seen with her mother, Shyamala, in this photo that was posted on Harris' Facebook page in March 2017.
A young Kamala Harris is seen with her mother, Shyamala, in this photo that was posted on Harris’ Facebook page in March 2017.

The influential grandfather

That sense of justice was shaped in large part by P.V. Gopalan, who as a diplomat worked to help resettle refugees from East Pakistan — modern-day Bangladesh — in India after the country’s partition, according to Harris’ maternal uncle, Gopalan Balachandran.

Balachandran told CNN in a phone call that his father had strong views on humanitarian issues, which influenced Shyamala’s upbringing.

But that wasn’t exactly what the two siblings bonded over when they were younger.

Balachandran, 80, said he best remembers how he and his sister loved to play pranks and would get into trouble when they were younger and living in Mumbai. He remembers his father as stingy with advice and quiet but supportive.

Gopalan’s confidence in his children proved crucial when it came time for Shyamala to move to Berkeley. Balachandran said at the time, she would have been one of the first 19-year-old single Indian woman to travel to the US to study because of conservative attitudes about the role of women in India.

But P.V. and Rajam Gopalan were progressive for their time. Balachandran said they offered to pay for the first year, and after that, Shyamala would have to make it on her own, which she did.

“We were so happy,” Balachandran said. 

Balachandran said his father was a bit warmer with his grandchildren, something Harris seems to reflect in her public comments about him. 

When they asked him for counsel, P.V. Gopalan would tell his grandchildren, “I will give you advice, but do what you think is best, what you like most, and do it well,” Balachandran recalled. 

Harris called her grandfather one of her “favorite people in the world,” in an interview with Los Angeles Times last year, while she was still campaigning for the democratic presidential nomination.

Speaking in a 2009 interview with Aziz Haniffa, the former executive editor and a chief correspondent of India Abroad, Harris said some of her fondest childhood memories were walking along the beach with her retired grandfather when he lived in the southern Indian city of Chennai, formerly known as Madras.

“He would take walks every morning along the beach with his buddies who were all retired government officials and they would talk about politics, about how corruption must be fought and about justice,” Harris said. “They would laugh and voice opinions and argue, and those conversations, even more than their actions, had such a strong influence on me in terms of learning to be responsible, to be honest, and to have integrity.”

Harris said her grandfather was one of the “original independence fighters in India,” but her uncle downplayed P.V.’s role in India’s fight against the British.

Kamala Harris uncle Gopalan Balachandran
Gopalan Balachandran, maternal uncle of US Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris, said her candidacy is historic for the Indian community [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

‘Make Shyamala proud’

Harris’ aunt, Sarala Gopalan, was awoken at 4 a.m. on Wednesday in Chennai with the news that her niece was former Vice President Joe Biden’s pick to join her on the Democratic ticket. 

She didn’t go back to sleep. 

“The family are all very happy, all of us,” she told CNN affiliate CNN News 18. 

Balachandran wasn’t exactly surprised. He knows US politics, both from his time in the country — he obtained a doctorate in economics and computer science from the University of Wisconsin — and his work as a regular commentator for The Hindu, one of India’s most prominent English-language newspapers.

Once Biden said he was going to nominate a woman, Balachandran thought it was “very, very likely” it would be Harris based on her experience and background

Balachandran said he and Harris don’t speak that often, in large part due the distance and the demands of being a high-ranking US politician. 

He joked that people in India who call Harris a “female Barack Obama” should now be calling the 44th US President a “male Kamala Harris.” 

When asked if he had a message for his niece, Balachandran remembered something his sister used to say.

“Shyamala always said never sit still. If you can do something, do something,” he said.

“Make Shyamala proud.”

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I have the great honor to announce that I’ve picked @KamalaHarris “- a fearless fighter for the little guy, and one of the country’s finest public servants “- as my running mate,” Biden tweeted. Senator Kamala Harris of California, whom Joe Biden chose on Tuesday as his running mate, will be the first Black woman and the first person of Indian descent to be nominated for national office by a major party.Image Credit: AP
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Harris, at 55 a full generation younger than Biden, also imparts a youthful persona and diversity, with Jamaican and Indian ancestry that may help Biden, as a 77-year-old White man, energise a Democratic base that is rapidly becoming younger, more female and less White. Image Credit: NYT
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Born in the US to immigrants, cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan from India and economics professor Donald Harris from Jamaica, Harris has leaped in a generation to running for a position that could put her a heartbeat away from the presidency. After her parents divorced when she was only seven, Harris was brought up by her mother, whom she has described as “tough and fierce and protective” yet “generous and loyal and funny,” and credits her for her success.Image Credit: NYT
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Harris’ record as a prosecutor – she was the San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011, and the California attorney general from 2011 to 2017 – was a major theme of her presidential campaign. She has said she became a prosecutor because she believed she could best change the system from within, a message that became a key part of her pitch as a presidential candidate.Image Credit: NYT
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This undated photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign in April 2019 shows her as a child at her mother’s lab in Berkeley, Calif. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP)Image Credit: AP
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In this undated photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign in April 2019, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, 25, holds her baby, Kamala. Moving from New Delhi to Berkeley for her PhD in the tumultuous era of the 1960s civil rights movements, Shyamala Gopalan [Kamala’s mother] joined the protests “with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.” Image Credit: Kamala Harris campaign via AP
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In this April 1965 photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign, Donald Harris holds his daughter, Kamala. Shyamala’s relationship with fellow-activist Donald Harris grew under the clamour of the protests and Kamala Harris recalls, “My parents often brought me in a stroller with them to civil rights marches.“Image Credit: AP
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This September 1966 photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign shows her during a family visit to the Harlem neighborhood of New York. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP)Image Credit: AP
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This Dec. 25, 1968 photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign shows her with her sister, Maya, on Christmas. 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.” Her sister is also a lawyer.Image Credit: AP
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In this undated photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign in April 2019, Iris Finegan holds her great granddaughter, Kamala Harris, in Jamaica. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP)Image Credit: AP
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This November 1982 photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign shows her, right, with Gwen Whitfield at an anti-apartheid protest during her freshman year at Howard University in Washington. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP)Image Credit: AP
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January 1970 photo shows her, left, with sister Maya and mother Shyamala: She wrote, “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.Image Credit: AP
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Harris writes that her grandfather had also been a “freedom-fighter.” She recalls visiting him as a child in Luska, where he had been sent by the Indian government in the late 1960s to help that young nation deal with a refugee crisis brought on by a renegade White supremacist government breaking away from Britain in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwer after overthrowing them.Image Credit: NYT
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This 2007 photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign shows her with her mother, Shyamala, at a Chinese New Year parade. In this environment, she wrote, “My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya [and Kamala] as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.“Image Credit: AP
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New York: FILE – In this Thursday Feb. 21, 2019, file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens during a visit with civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton during lunch at Sylvia’s Restaurant in the Harlem neighborhood of New York. Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden named Harris as his running mate, making history by selecting the first Black woman to compete on a major party’s presidential ticket. AP/PTI Photo(AP12-08-2020_000046B)Image Credit: AP
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The former California attorney general is the first person of Indian descent in the running mate role, and personifies the diversity seen as key to building enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket, particularly in a year marked by a historic reckoning on race. She is the third female vice presidential nominee for a major party, after the groundbreaking but unsuccessful runs of Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008. Hillary Clinton was the first female presidential nominee, losing to Trump in 2016.Image Credit: NYT
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Elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris was the first Black woman in the chamber in more than a decade. During her relatively brief time as California’s junior senator, she has become known for her intensive interrogations of Trump administration officials and nominees, including Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing and during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.Image Credit: NYT

Dona Cherian, Assistant Online Editor and Compiled from Agencies


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