Kamala Harris, the vice president-elect, has spoken about how having two immigrant parents impacted her own political values. In particular, she has spoken about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, a Tamil Indian-American who became a leading cancer researcher and activist and passed away from colon cancer in 2009. From her name—Shyamala gave her and her sister Maya Sanskrit names to connect their heritage with their identities—to Kamala's focus on immigration and equal rights, Shyamala had, and continues to have, a profound influence and lasting legacy on her high-flying daughter.
As the first Black female vice president, Kalama makes history, a victory and emblem of hope for our nation. Her mother would have been more than proud: "My mother understood very well she was raising two black daughters," she wrote in her 2018 autobiography, The Truths We Hold. "She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women."
Grow into confident women they did: A former district attorney and state attorney general, Kamala is taking her courage and conviction straight to the White House.
It's easy to see where Kamala gets her fearlessness from. Like her daughter, Shyamala was a high achiever, someone who pursued her career with conviction: After graduating from the University of Delhi, Shyamala got a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology from UC Berkeley. She stayed there for her career as a breast cancer researcher, then later worked at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin—even eventually being a part of the Special Commission on Breast Cancer. In addition to inspiring Kamala through service, she was also a civil rights activist.
It was through activism that Shyamala met the father of her future children, Donald J. Harris. The pair crossed paths at an off-campus meeting in 1962, where Donald discussed the parallels between his home country, Jamaica, and the U.S. When the meeting was over, Gopalan stuck around to introduce herself. He recalled her to The New York Times, "a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women."
She passed this activism on to her daughter. Matt Sedensky wrote in an Associated Press article last year:
As much as mother and daughter shared, Gopalan Harris believed the world would see them differently. Those who knew her say she was dismayed by racial inequality in the U.S. Understanding her girls would be seen as black despite their mixed heritage, she surrounded them with black role models and immersed them in black culture.
Gopalan shared to SF Weekly that she didn't plan on staying in America past her college years., but that changed when she met Donald. "I came to study at UC Berkeley," she said. "I never came to stay. It's the old story: I fell in love with a guy, we got married, pretty soon kids came."
The family lived in California (Kamala was a student who was part of the historical busing in the state) until Kamala's mom got a research job in Canada. By that point, Kamala's parents were divorced (and Shyamala was the family's primary caretaker).
Shyamala's brother revealed to the New York Times that she didn't want to separate from Donald. "She was quite unhappy about the separation but she had already got used to that and she didn't want to talk to Don after that," he shared. "When you love somebody, then love turns into very hard bitterness, you don't even want to talk to them."
Kamala doesn't post often on social media about her dad, who criticized one of Kamala's joking comments during her campaign. Kamala's connection to her mother seems far simpler, and filled with joy and inspiration.
According to Shyamala's obituary, "She made substantial contributions to the field of hormones and breast cancer, publishing her research in countless journals and receiving numerous honors...Her discovery sparked a plethora of advancements regarding the role of progesterone and its cellular receptor in breast biology and cancer." She was also well-known as a mentor, particularly to students of color. Now, her daughter gets to build upon that impressive foundation.
Shyamala's life and later sickness had a profound impact on Kamala, In a New York Times article, Kamala addressed the sadness she felt about her mom's passing and how witnessing her suffering led to her understanding of health care. "She got sick before the Affordable Care Act became law, back when it was still legal for health insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. I remember thanking God she had Medicare."
"As I continue the battle for a better health care system, I do so in her name," she added.
Kamala posts on social media about her mom to this day—to the extent that she directly cites Shyamala as an inspiration for presidential run last year. As a matter of fact, according to Kamala, her mom was her first campaign staffer—that's how much she supported her daughter.
Thinking of my mother today. She was smart, fierce, and my first campaign staffer — and I dearly wish she was here with us for this moment. Her spirit still drives me to fight for our values. pic.twitter.com/pf0lFrvoWIJanuary 22, 2019
On July 10, 2019, Kamala posted, "My sister Maya and I were raised by a strong mother...She taught us not only to dream but to do. She taught us to believe in our power to right what is wrong." She added, "And she was the kind of parent who if you came home complaining about something, she’d say 'Well what are you gonna do about it?' So I decided to run for President of the United States." She added a sweet throwback picture of her mom and sister.
And as a part of an E! News culture survey, she lists her mom as her favorite superhero. She also calls her mom "the reason for everything." In her memoir and the New York Times article, she explains, "There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all."
In her speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Kamala shared just how big an impact her mother made on her life. "Even as she taught us to keep our family at the center of our world, she also pushed us to see a world beyond ourselves," Kamala said. "She taught us to be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people. To believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is a shared responsibility."
No doubt, Kamala will use the learnings and wisdom she's learned from her mother in the past to work with Biden on building a better future for Americans nationwide.
Katherine’s a Boston-based contributor at Marie Claire who covers fashion, culture, and lifestyle—from “Clueless” to Everlane to news about Lizzo. She’s been a freelancer for 11 years and has had roles with Cosmopolitan and Bustle, with bylines in Parents, Seventeen, and elsewhere. It’s “I go to dinner,” not “Her huge ego,” but she responds to both.
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