Kamala Harris says she'll be "thinking about [her] mother" on Inauguration Day

Korin Miller
·13-min read

From Harper's BAZAAR

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be "thinking about [her] mother" on Inauguration Day when she makes history as the first female, Black and South Asian Vice President, she said in a recent interview with Good Morning America.

"I'll be thinking about all those girls and boys," the former US Senator of California, 56, told Robin Roberts during the interview. "You know, before the pandemic struck, the fathers and the mothers would bring them around and say, 'You know, you can do anything.' I was raised by a mother who said to me all the time, 'Kamala, you may be the first to do many things—make sure you're not the last.' That's how I feel about this moment."

Of course, this moment is coming up soon: Harris' historical inauguration takes place on 20 January.

Harris also said that she feels "a very big sense of responsibility" in her upcoming new role, and that her husband, Douglas Emhoff, does too.

"He's aware that we still have so much work to do to remind our children of every gender that they should not be confined by the limited perception that some might have of who they are and what they can be," she noted.

The VP-elect also talked about the strong partnership she has developed with President-Elect Joe Biden and their future leading the country together.

"Joe and I were elected to do a job, which is to build back better and to fight for the best of who we are as a nation," she said. "And he and I as partners, if we are able to do that together, I think our country will be the better for it."

There is no doubt that Harris' parents, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan and Donald Harris, helped her become the person she is today—and the inspiration she'll be to many on 20 January. Here’s everything you need to know about them:

Kamala Harris’ parents met in college

They both attended University of California Berkeley for graduate school, where they ended up meeting, according to The Mercury News. After graduating from India’s University of Delhi at age 19, Shyamala moved to Berkeley to get her doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology. Donald graduated from Jamaica’s University College of the West Indies before studying at Berkeley.

The future couple met after joining a group of students who met on Sundays to talk about Black writers who were overlooked by the school’s curriculum, and to debate about politics, decolonisation and activism, The Mercury News reported.

Shyamala caught Donald’s eye after she introduced herself following one of his speeches, according to the New York Times. He recalled to the publication that she was "a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women".

And she charmed him. "This was all very interesting to me, and, I daresay, a bit charming," Donald, now an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford, told NYT. "At a subsequent meeting, we talked again, and at the one after that. The rest is now history."

According to Shyamala, she never intended to stay in America, planning to return to India. But meeting Donald changed things. "I never came to stay," she told a reporter for SF Weekly in 2003. "It’s the old story: I fell in love with a guy, we got married, pretty soon kids came."

The couple tied the knot while they were still in school.

Watch this video to learn more about Kamala Harris’ grandparents, too:

Kamala’s mother was the daughter of an Indian diplomat and was born in India

Shyamala was a Tamil Indian-American born in the southeastern state of Tamil Nadu. Her father, P.V. Gopalan, was a senior civil servant and a member of the privileged, elite, ancient Tamil Brahmin caste, Biography reports. Shyamala’s mother, Rajam, was a women’s rights activist and advocated for increased access to birth control for Indian women. Shyamala’s family stressed the importance of education for all their children.

Kamala remembers visiting her grandparents in India, and shared about it on Instagram.

She wrote in the caption: "When I was a young girl visiting my grandparents in India, I’d join my grandfather and his buddies on their morning walk along the beach as they would talk about the importance of fighting for democracy and civil rights. Those walks made me who I am today."

Most Indian women received a limited education at the time and, after graduating from a women’s college in New Delhi, Shyamala—who had never visited the US—secretly applied to University of California at Berkeley. Her father ended up using money from his savings to pay for her first year of school, according to Biography.

Shyamala started school at Berkeley in 1958—two years before Donald—working towards her master’s degree in nutrition and endocrinology.

And her father was born in Jamaica

Donald was born in Jamaica in 1938. He was the son of Afro-Jamaican parents, and he had the majority of his schooling in the country. He eventually graduated from the University of the West Indies, reports Biography.

Donald ended up earning a prestigious scholarship to pursue advanced studies in economics and took a different path from previous scholarship recipients who chose to study in the UK. Instead, inspired by the civil rights movement, Donald applied to Berkeley.

He got accepted and immigrated to the United States to pursue his doctorate degree from the University of California Berkeley, where he met Shyamala. He eventually became a naturalised United States citizen, says his Stanford bio.

He taught at Stanford University from 1972 until 1998, when he took early retirement. He used his time to work on "developing public policies to promote economic growth and advance social equity".

Kamala also visited Jamaica with her family as a child

Donald took his children on frequent visits to his home country to teach them about their heritage, reports an essay he wrote for Jamaica Global Online. "One of the most vivid and fondest memories I have of that early period with my children is of the visit we made in 1970 to Orange Hill," Donald wrote. "We trudged through the cow dung and rusted iron gates, up-hill and down-hill, along narrow unkempt paths, to the very end of the family property, all in my eagerness to show to the girls the terrain over which I had wandered daily for hours as a boy."

Kamala’s parents met at a Black author study group

After she started at Berkeley, Shyamala joined an off-campus reading group studying the overlooked works of Black authors, according to The New York Times. It later became known as the Afro-American Association. Members included influential activists, including Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party. In 1962, Donald joined the group and the two bonded over their political views.

While Shyamala originally planned to return home to India after finishing her degree, where she would likely have an arranged marriage, she ended up marrying Donald the next year.

Kamala’s parents were both huge civil rights activists

Speaking to a virtual crowd at the 2020 Democratic National Convention in August, Kamala said that her parents "fell in love in that most American way—while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s," according to People.

"My parents would bring me to protests—strapped tightly in my stroller," she added. Shyamala even met Martin Luther King Jr. when he spoke at Berkeley in 1967.

Her grandparents also held progressive ideals

Not only were Kamala’s parents involved in the civil rights movement and advocated for social progress, but her grandparents held similar views. She opened up about their passion for access to birth control in an Instagram post shared this September.

"My grandparents were phenomenal. My grandfather fought for and was a defender of the freedom of India, while my grandmother travelled across India—bullhorn in hand—to talk to women about accessing birth control. Their passion and commitment to improving our future led me to where I am today," Kamala wrote.

They divorced when Kamala was a child

Shyamala and Donald separated when Kamala was just five, according to the BBC. The reason, per Kamala’s book, The Truths We Hold: Donald took a professorship position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Shyamala filed for divorce when Kamala was seven and won custody of Kamala and her sister, Maya, two years later. "They didn’t fight about money. The only thing they fought about was who got the books," Kamala wrote in her memoir.

"I knew they loved each other very much, but it seemed like they had become like oil and water," she also wrote in her memoir, per the NYT.

In her memoir, the senator also wrote that her parents struggled with "incompatibility" and that she and her sister spent most of their time with their mother. She said that they would see their dad Donald "on weekends and spend summers with him in Palo Alto".

"Had they been a little older, a little more emotionally mature, maybe the marriage could have survived. But they were so young. My father was my mother’s first boyfriend," Kamala also revealed in her memoir, according to People.

And her parents rarely spoke after their divorce

The split left Shyamala so angry that, for years, she barely interacted with Donald, per the New York Times. Kamala recalled that, when she invited both her parents to her high-school graduation, she feared that her mother would not show up, the publication reported.

"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," Shyamala's brother, Gopalan Balachandran, told the New York Times. "When you love somebody, then love turns into very hard bitterness, you don’t even want to talk to them."

Kamala’s mother raised her to be a “strong, Black woman"

Kamala shared a tribute to her mother for Black History Month: "My mother was very intentional about raising my sister, Maya, and me as strong, Black women. She coupled her teachings of civic duty and fearlessness with actions, which included taking us on Thursday nights to Rainbow Sign, a Black cultural centre near our home."

She continued: "This #BlackHistoryMonth, I want to lift up my mother and the community at Rainbow Sign who taught us anything was possible, unburdened by what has been."

Kamala misses her mother a lot

In August, she paid tribute to Shymala in an Instagram post. "My mother always use to say, 'Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something.' I dearly wish she were here with us this week," Kamala wrote in caption.

Shyamala and Donald both had impressive careers

Kamala’s mother was a leading breast cancer researcher who worked at UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and the University of Wisconsin, and was eventually part of the Special Commission on Breast Cancer, according to her obituary. The obituary also points out that Shyamala "made substantial contributions to the field of hormones and breast cancer, publishing her research in countless journals and receiving numerous honours. Her discovery sparked a plethora of advancements regarding the role of progesterone and its cellular receptor in breast biology and cancer."

Donald is a prominent economist who worked at UC Berkeley, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Stanford University, according to his Stanford bio. His research has focused on "exploring the analytical conception of the process of capital accumulation and its implications for a theory of growth of the economy, with the aim of providing thereby an explanation of the intrinsic character of growth as a process of uneven development," the bio says.

Donald also served as economic consultant to the Government of Jamaica and as economic adviser to several prime ministers.

Photo credit: C-SPAN
Photo credit: C-SPAN

Kamala was particularly close to her mother

Kamala has spoken about her relationship with her mother a lot in public, praising her for being a strong woman. "I’m the daughter of a mother who broke down all kinds of barriers," Kamala wrote on Instagram in May. "Shyamala Harris was no more than five feet tall, but if you ever met her you would think she was seven feet tall. She had such spirit and tenacity and I’m thankful every day to have been raised by her."

Shyamala died from colon cancer on 11 February 2009

"It was one of the worst days of my life," Kamala wrote in a New York Times opinion piece reflecting on the day in 2008, when her mother told her she had been diagnosed with colon cancer. "Are my daughters going to be OK?" was one of the last questions Shyamala asked the hospice nurse. Kamala says, "she was focused on being our mother until the very end".

She added: "And though I miss her every day, I carry her with me wherever I go. I think of the battles she fought, the values she taught me, her commitment to improve health care for us all. There is no title or honour on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’ daughter."

Kamala's vote was inspired by her mother, Shymala

The VP candidate shared on her Instagram that she was voting for people like her mother. "#ImVotingFor people like my mother, Shyamala, who taught my sister and me that if you see a problem, you don't complain about it: you do something about it. It’s because of her that I know change is possible when we put in the work," she wrote in her caption.

She is really close to her sister, Maya

Kamala’s younger sister Maya, 53, is Kamala’s only sibling, and they are extremely close.

"We forged a bond that is unbreakable," Kamala said of her sister last year in an interview with the Washington Post. "When I think about it, all of the joyous moments in our lives, all of the challenging moments, all of the moments of transition, we have always been together."

Maya also helped introduce Kamala during this year’s DNC, and talked about their bond. "Growing up, heaven help the poor kid who picked on me because my sister would be there in a flash to have my back," she said. "Now we've got your back as you and Joe fight to protect our democracy."

Kamala also shared a sweet picture of her and Maya rocking bell bottoms and posing back-to-back with each other in another Instagram post, where she noted that she had gone "through a growth spurt and her mother had taken the hem out of her trousers".

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