Kamala Harris's parents
US vice president-elect and senator from California, Kamala Harris, speaking in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 27, 2020. Source: Eric Baradat/AFP

Kamala Harris has become a household name this year. In the US, she created history with a long list of “firsts,” including first black woman vice president. Across the world in the homelands of Kamala Harris’s parents — India and Jamaica — citizens are celebrating the first US Vice President with roots in their countries. They revel in the streets with handmade posters featuring her picture.

A child of immigrants, Harris’ political clout draws largely from her origin story. Her father and mother came from Jamaica and India respectively to study in the US back in the 60s, connecting at a black study group that would become the Afro American Association  — a building block for the Black Panther Party and the American civil rights movement.

The economist father

Kamala Harris

Donald Harris holding his daughter Kamala in April 1965. Source: Kamala Harris/AFP

Donald J. Harris came to the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) to study economics on a scholarship from the British colonial government. He was attracted to the US  for the nascent civil rights movement brewing in the South; the study group introduced this Jamaican to the realities of African-American life. As he recently told the Washington Post, the country represented “a lively and evolving dynamic of a racially and ethnically complex society.”

Kamala Harris’s parents met in the fall of 1962. After speaking at the study group, Harris Sr. was approached by a young Indian scientist named Shyamala Gopalan. They were both deeply intellectual 24-year-old international students involved in transforming the political landscape of their new home.  Their marriage did not survive, as Kamala repeatedly recounts during the campaign trail that she was raised by a single mother. Harris Sr. lived most of his life away from his family, going on to become an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford.

The scientist mother

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris with her maternal family. Her mother hails from Tamil Nadu, India. Source: Kamala Harris

Shyamala Gopalan’s family in Chennai was progressive by South Asian standards. After completing her home science degree at the Lady Irwin College in Delhi, she got into UC Berkeley for postgraduates studies in nutrition and endocrinology. “I never came (to the US) to stay. It’s the old story: I fell in love with a guy, we got married, pretty soon kids came,” she told SF Weekly.

They were married in 1963 and welcomed their first child Kamala the following year — the same year Gopalan received her PhD. She went on to research breast cancer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Wisconsin, Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research, McGill University Faculty of Medicine, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Her work advanced the understanding of hormones in breast cancer.

Sufficed to say, Harris drew great inspiration from her scientist immigrant mother, who built a respectable research career while raising two daughters. She knocked down several barriers still familiar to international students today, including being underestimated for her accent.

Kamala Harris’s parents divorced when Kamala was just seven, so Harris credits her single mother for her upbringing. Nevertheless, Gopalan ensured Kamala and her sister Maya grew up well acquainted with both their African and Indian roots, which became formative to their American identity. When her daughter ran for San Francisco district attorney, Gopalan volunteered selflessly on the campaign trail. Sadly, she passed away in 2009 from colon cancer.

The first-generation lawyer

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris’s parents were bright, international students at UC Berkeley. Source: Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris recalls that her parents never fought for money during their divorce, only for the books they shared. Naturally, coming from an academically-inclined family, that set a high bar for her education.

Harris is a product of American higher education, having obtained a degree in political science and economics from Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. She then attended law school at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, where she led the Black Law Students Association chapter. Young Harris’ only stint as an international student was in Canada, where she lived as a child. She attended Notre-Dame-des-Neiges School and Westmount High School in Montreal.

Harris was the first person of colour to become district attorney in San Francisco. Later, she became the Attorney General of California, and finally Senator at the age of 52. She was part of a short-lived presidential run before joining Biden’s camp. Now, Kamala Harris is set to continue creating history as a living testament to the American dream.