The Oasis Reporters
November 8, 2020
As the saying goes, sweet success has many fathers unlike failure that easily becomes an unfortunate orphan.
The moment Joe Biden was declared president elect with Kamala Harris as Vice President-elect, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was swift in recognizing Kamala Harris as India’s own, before people began to call her African American. Prime Minister Modi is a man seen as a friend of President Trump, a man who had visited India as a State guest for two days. In that moment of agony for election loser Trump and the Mexican president still expressing solidarity with Trump, Modi had quickly congratulated Kamala Harris by asserting her Indian roots. So one would think that the incoming Vice President is Indian. Or mainly Indian.
But it is known that only Kamala’s mother hailed from the sub continent.
Heartiest congratulations @KamalaHarris! Your success is pathbreaking, and a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans. I am confident that the vibrant India-US ties will get even stronger with your support and leadership.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 7, 2020
The Twitter noise from Modi was loud from Delhi.
The voice from Jamaica followed, no less, for Kamala Harris’ equally famous father originates from the Caribbean country.
Therefore, Jamaican Prime Minister, Andrew Holness equally Tweeted:
(1/2) I extend congratulations to the President-elect and Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.— Andrew Holness (@AndrewHolnessJM) November 7, 2020
America will have its first female Vice President in the person of Kamala Harris, and we are proud that she bears Jamaican heritage. pic.twitter.com/1Ovte7F2YP
Emeritus Professor Harris is a naturalized American, having come to the United States from Jamaica.
At the beginning, it was a captivating sweet story love affair between the Indian scientist, Shyamala Gopalan who had met a tall, thin Jamaican doctoral student, addressing a small crowd, drawing parallels between his native country and the United States.
It was at an off-campus space at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1962.
The lady was a tiny Indian scientist wearing a sari and sandals — the only other foreign student to show up for a talk on race in America. She was, he recalled, “a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women.”
The Jamaican man, Donald J. Harris was so professorial in a particular presentation, which Shyamala found captivating and she eventually introduced herself. The ingredients for love were already sown.
An article in The New York Times written by Ellen Barry reports that Shyamala Gopalan had been born the same year as Harris, in another British colony on the other side of the planet. But her view of the colonial system was more sheltered, the view of a senior civil servant’s daughter, she told him. His speech had raised questions for her. She wanted to hear more.
“This was all very interesting to me and, I daresay, a bit charming,” recalled Harris, now 82 and an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford University, in written answers to questions. “At a subsequent meeting, we talked again, and at the one after that. The rest is now history”.
The Indian lady and Jamaican man had a daughter in their marriage and her name is Kamala Harris.
For decades, the brightest students from British colonies like Jamaica and India had been sent, by reflex, to Britain to pursue advanced degrees. But for Harris and Gopalan, each case was different. Each had a compelling reason to want an American education.
In Gopalan’s case, the trouble was that she was a woman.
Gopalan, the oldest child in a high-achieving Tamil Brahmin family, wanted to be a biochemist. But at Lady Irwin College, founded by the British to provide an education in science to Indian women, she had been forced to settle for a degree in home science.
But she had a plan: In America — unlike India or the United Kingdom — it was still possible to apply for a degree in biochemistry, her brother said. She presented her father with a fait accompli: She had been admitted to the University of California at Berkeley.
Her father was astonished, her brother said, but not opposed. “He was only worried; none of us had been abroad. He said, ‘I don’t know anybody in the States. I certainly don’t know anybody in Berkeley.’ She said, ‘Father, don’t worry,’” he said. He offered to pay for her first year of studies.
Eight thousand miles away, in 1961, something similar occurred with Harris, who was seeking a doctorate in economics.
When he was awarded a prestigious scholarship granted by the British colonial government, it was assumed he would study in Britain, like the recipients who had preceded him.
But Harris didn’t want to go to Britain. His early education had marinated him in British culture, all those obedient choruses of “Rule, Brittania.” (“Read the words; you’ll be astonished!” he said.) He began to see, he said, how Britain’s “static rigidity of pomp, ceremony and class” had been transplanted onto plantation society in Jamaica.
No, he was drawn to the U.S..
UC Berkeley had come to his attention in a news story about student activists traveling to the South to campaign for civil rights.
“Further investigation of information about this university convinced me I had to go there,” he said.
Using the scholarship to study in the U.S. was such a “grave departure from custom and tradition,” he said, that the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education wrote for advice to an eminent West Indian professor, Sir Arthur Lewis, who was teaching economics at Manchester University. The deliberation took so long that classes had already started when the economist’s letter of approval arrived.
“I was overjoyed,” Harris recalled. Two weeks into the semester, he boarded a plane for San Francisco. A meeting had been set in motion.
In 1961, when Harris arrived on campus, he, too, fell in with the study group right away.
On one of his first days at Berkeley, he said, he spotted a Black architecture student holding a hand-painted sign, staging a one-man demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, and introduced himself. The student turned out to be Kenneth Simmons, a “guiding light” in the Afro American Association, along with Lewis and Robinson, he said.
Harris described the study group as an oasis, his introduction “to the realities of African American life in its truest and rawest form, its richness and complexity, wealth and poverty, hope and despair.”
It was in that company, in the fall of 1962, that he met his future wife. “We talked then, continued to talk at a subsequent meeting, and at another, and another,” he said. The following year they were married.
Until then Gopalan had expected to return to India, she reflected years later. “I never came to stay,” she told a reporter for SF Weekly. “It’s the old story: I fell in love with a guy; we got married; pretty soon kids came.”
Shyamala Gopalan fell into important friendships at Berkeley right away.
As she stood in line to register for classes, in the fall of 1959, the person standing behind her was Cedric Robinson, a Black teenager from Oakland.
In 1960, there were fewer than 100 Black students in a student body of 20,000, historian Donna Murch wrote in her book “Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party.”
Robinson, whose grandfather had fled Alabama in the 1920s to escape a lynching, was the first in his family to enroll in college. “As a Black kid from Oakland, he didn’t even know what one did to get into the university,” recalled his widow, Elizabeth.
The woman in front of him made an impression. Gopalan, his elder by two years, often wore a sari in those days, and acquaintances said they thought she came from royalty; that’s how she carried herself. When Robinson stepped up to the desk, the registrar assumed he was a graduate student from Africa and asked, politely, if his country was also paying his tuition.
Robinson, who died in 2016, thought that was hilarious, said historian Robin D.G. Kelley. He would tell that story over the years as he went on to earn a master’s and a doctorate, then tenure at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writing five books along the way. He and Gopalan would form a lifelong friendship.
When he wrote his best-known book, “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition,” in 1983, he listed the old friends who had helped him formulate his ideas. They were all Black, except for Gopalan.
They would both become part of a Black intellectual study group that met in the off-campus house of Mary Agnes Lewis, an anthropology student.
The group, later known as the Afro American Association, was “the most foundational institution in the Black Power movement,” said Murch, who devoted two chapters to it in her book.
This was no casual book club. Reading was assigned, and if you failed to keep up with it you would pay. At one discussion on existentialism, community college student Huey Newton — the future co-founder of the Black Panther Party — was chastised for not having done the reading, recalled Margot Dashiell, 78, who went on to become a sociology professor at Laney College.
“He came back the next time and he was fully prepared,” she said.
The group would later limit its membership to people of African descent, refusing admission to the white partner of a Black member, Murch wrote.
But as a former colonial subject and a person of color, there was no question that Gopalan belonged, other members said in interviews.
“She was part of the real brotherhood and sisterhood; there was never an issue,” said Aubrey LaBrie, who went on to teach courses on Black nationalism at San Francisco State University. “She was just accepted as part of the group.”
The Harrises’ marriage would fray as Harris took short-term teaching positions at two different universities in Illinois. When he won a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin, Gopalan Harris settled, instead, with her children in Oakland and West Berkeley.
Harris’ career would flourish. A left-wing critic of neoclassical economic theory, he was a popular professor and became the first Black scholar to receive tenure in Stanford’s economics department. But a deep freeze had settled in the marriage.
Gopalan Harris, a research scientist who published influential work on the role of hormones in breast cancer, filed for divorce in 1972. The split left her so angry that, for years, she barely interacted with Harris. Kamala Harris has recalled that, when she invited both her parents to her high school graduation, she feared that her mother would not show up.
The incoming US Vice president Kamala Harris is American, with Jamaican and Tamil-Indian roots.
The New York Times