Modern History From Afar: Daughter of Jamaican & Indian Immigrants is U.S. Vice-President

by Carolee Chanona

The ascension of Sen. Kamala to the vice presidency is a singular historical event. With Harris taking the oath of office today, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants will become the first woman to assume the U.S. vice presidency. The second-highest political office. The first person of Black or Indian heritage to hold the office. Regardless of your political alignments or nationality, we are witnessing a modern milestone. After all, as long as there has been a United States of America, there have been mixed-race Americans.

Inaugurating an Immigrant

kamala harris immigrant

Kamala Harris, front center, standing in front of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and beside her younger sister, Maya. Flanking Harris are her grandparents P.V., left, and Rajam Gopalan, who were visiting in 1972. Courtesy of the Kamala Harris campaign

Forgive my inspired undertone, but I join the rest of the world with celebrating democracy. Today—a stark contrast from the scene of Capitol Hill just two weeks ago—signals the ability and resilience to ‘turn the page’. President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn-in as the 46th president of the United States Wednesday at noon, amid a devastating global pandemic and the threat of possible domestic terrorism. Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black American and the first South Asian American vice president, will be sworn in next by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina justice on the Supreme Court.

The current national tumult, particularly the egregious attempt to undermine the results of the 2020 presidential election, gives us even more of a reason to lift up Harris’s election as a source of inspiration.

“I am proud to be with you as a vice president elect with roots in the Caribbean,” said Harris at a virtual event on January 18, which was live streamed.

Drawing on Jamaican and Indian Roots

Harris and Obama do not explicitly identify as mixed race, yet their mixed ancestry appeals to those that view it as a welcome cosmopolitan marker. In an email to The Washington Post, Harris recounts a Bob Marley and the Wailers concert as a teenager with her father, as she sang and swayed with her sister Maya. The experience was meant to be more than musical. Her father, a prominent Jamaican economics professor teaching at Stanford, was trying to instill his two American-born girls with a sense of pride in their roots. Like the Harrises, Marley was from a parish on the north coast of the island called St. Ann. The cultural contribution of her Jamaican heritage is perhaps the most singular impression he made on the identity of the senator from California.

“My father, like so many Jamaicans, has immense pride in our Jamaican heritage and instilled that same pride in my sister and me,” Harris wrote. “We love Jamaica. He taught us the history of where we’re from, the struggles and beauty of the Jamaican people, and the richness of the culture.”

Donald Harris’s love of economics took him to the University of the West Indies and then to Berkeley, where he received his PhD in 1966. At Stanford, he became the first Black economics professor to receive tenure. His students joked about the way he frequently arrived for class about 10 minutes late; some attributed it to his easygoing Caribbean demeanor.  Indeed, that’s something most Belizeans can resonate with, despite our mainland geography still operating on ‘island time’. His high-minded theories, though, were no joke; delivered in what some students described as a very erudite Jamaican accent.

Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, immigrated from Madras (now Chennai), India at just 19 years old, alone. Having graduated from Delhi University, she went to study at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received her doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology. After receiving her PhD, Gopalan stayed at UC Berkeley and became a breast cancer researcher. She worked at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin; spent time in France and Italy; and then received tenure at McGill University in Montreal. In the 1960s, Gopalan met the man who would become her husband and the father of her children: Donald J. Harris. Both were getting doctorates at UC Berkeley and were actively involved in the civil rights movement; they met at a protest.

A Modern Milestone


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Kamala Harris (@kamalaharris)

Speaking about the swearing-in ceremony on Good Morning America, Harris previously explained, “I was raised by a mother who said that to me all the time. ‘Kamala, well, you may be the first to do many things—make sure you’re not the last.’ And that’s how I feel about this moment.” Indeed, Kamala’s American mixed-race experience is a reminder that our personal identities, and family and community relations, are deeply complex. In her Vice Presidency, I hope that she draws on that narrative, in addition to her political experience. Instead, to magnify her empathetic appeals to the United States of America during this period of dire political divides.

Header image features Kamala Harris and her sister, Maya, far right, spend time with their cousins in Jamaica. (Undated photo courtesy of Kamala Harris) Source: Town & Country Mag, VOX,  The Washington Post, NBC News

Related Articles