Photograph by September Dawn Bottoms for TIME
On Aug. 11, many of us were waiting with considerable suspense to find out whom Joe Biden would pick to be his running mate. A video that shows him calling Kamala Harris goes like this:
Biden: All right.
We see him taking off his mask. Then we hear Harris’ voice on the line.
Harris: Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Sorry to keep you.
Biden: No, that’s all right. You ready to go to work?
There is silence. About three seconds of absolute silence.
Harris: Oh my God. I’m so ready to go to work.
Biden: First of all, is the answer yes?
Harris: The answer is absolutely yes, Joe. And I am ready to work.
When Kamala Harris becomes the Vice President of the United States in January, she will be, as has been frequently noted, a first—the first woman, the first Black person and the first Indian-American person to hold this office. But while it is worth celebrating that the top leadership of the U.S. will better mirror its people, it is important to remember that simply naming these identities does not tell us all we need to know. It’s within the particulars of her lived experience as a Black and Indian-American woman that we can truly understand who she is today and what she brings with her to the White House.
Harris writes in her memoir The Truths We Hold that her mother, who grew up in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, “understood very well that she was raising two black daughters.” Harris’ now well-worn narrative includes little about her father, who moved to the U.S. from Jamaica and acquired a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris fell in love as civil rights activists and divorced when the future VP was 7, and Gopalan got custody of Harris and her sister Maya. Harris mentions spending summers with her father in Palo Alto, Calif., where he became a tenured professor of economics at Stanford in the 1970s, no small feat for a Black man. “The Farm,” the “Harvard of the West,” still had only a handful of Black faculty when I became tenured there in the ’90s—I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be Black and on the tenure track in the ’70s.
Portrait by Jason Seiler for TIME
But it is her mother, a noted cancer researcher, who is frequently evoked as Harris’ influence and inspiration. “When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn’t quite imagine this moment,” Harris said in her victory speech on Nov. 7. “But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.” And that she came at all is thanks largely to Harris’ grandfather P.V. Gopalan, a civil servant in India. The history of South Asian activists’ struggle for independence is rich and the movement’s solidarity with the fight for civil rights in the U.S. runs deep; Harris has talked of walking the beaches of Besant Nagar with her grandfather, her pen pal in those aerogram pre-email days, and being inspired as a girl by the passion he had for democracy. Still, it’s worth noting that although Harris is “for the people,” she is not “of the people.” When we speak of her as the first Indian-American Vice President of the United States, we should also acknowledge that she comes into this position with at least some level of privilege. Her family is Brahman, the most elite caste in India.
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Harris is a highly educated and accomplished woman, but she is hardly the only one in her family. In an interview with an Indian newscaster after the election, Dr. Sarala Gopalan, Harris’ aunt, or chitti, explained that sending Shyamala to the U.S. was not something you would expect from a South Indian in 1958. But their father believed that women should be educated. “When she became a Senator, I went and told her, ‘Kamala, you are a diamond in the family,’” said Sarala Gopalan, a gynecologist, “and she just said to me, ‘Chitti, I am not a diamond, I am a diamond amongst diamonds in the family.’”
Kamala Harris with her younger sister, Maya, and their mother outside of their apartment on Milvia Street in Jan. 1970.Courtesy of Kamala Harris
Dr. Radhika Balakrishnan, faculty director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, points to another sign of how progressive Harris’ grandfather must have been. “The racism against Black people in India and the colorism in India is enormous and pervasive throughout the country, including in Tamil Nadu,” she explains. And yet he not only accepted but embraced his granddaughters, proud Black American women.
On the day of George Floyd’s first funeral service, Harris gave an impassioned speech on the Senate floor. Senator Rand Paul had just held up the anti-lynching bill she had introduced with Senators Cory Booker and Tim Scott, the only other Black members of the Senate, and she stood to take issue with this affront. “It should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law and call it what it is, which is that it is a crime that should be punishable with accountability and consequence,” she said. “So it is remarkable and it is painful to be standing here right now, especially when people of all races are marching in the streets of America, outraged by the hate and the violence and the murder that has been fueled by racism during the span of this country’s life.”
Her speech, in which she quoted anti-lynching pioneer Ida B. Wells, also drew on her history. As a student at Howard, a historically Black university, Harris joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first Black Greek sorority. AKA was started in 1908 by Ethel Hedgeman, and from the outset, the sisters believed it was their duty to “raise up Negroes.” In the 1930s, they started both an education program and a rural health program in Mississippi. In the early 20th century, one of the sorority’s projects was pushing anti-lynching legislation. After around 200 attempts, which ceased in the 1960s, legislation did not pass in Congress. Nearly 60 years later, Harris joined Booker and Scott in picking up the mantle by co-authoring the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act, which was later renamed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. And in doing so, Harris continued the tradition of Black women working for the betterment of all humankind.
These are just a few examples of how examining Harris’ specific experiences and relationships—different from those of the past and present occupants of high office—may yield a deeper understanding of the woman who just made history. But they are a reminder that the U.S. will not only have its first Vice President who is a Black and Indian-American woman, as important as those milestones are. Harris is standing on a firm foundation of service, courage, struggle, passion, intellectual rigor and hope. She is indeed ready to go to work.
Smith is an award-winning playwright, actor and NYU professor
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