This Is My Mother: Indian-Americans respond to Kamala Harris’ emphasis on Indian roots

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Kamala Harris, left, with mother Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris, and sister Maya (undated photo) Facebook post March 31, 2014, with the words, “On the last day of #WomensHistoryMonth, I honor the two great women in my life. My mother always told my sister @mayaharris_ and me, “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.”

For Indian-Americans, both Democratic, Republican and Independent/Undecided, as well as for Mainstreet America, Sen. Kamala Harris’ speech Aug. 19, 2020, accepting the Democratic  nomination for Vice President, was not just a historic moment, but an eye-opener into their own lives, and the potential of America.

As the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Devi Harris, dwelt at length on her Indian mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who came to this country at the age of 19, and brought up her two daughters singlehandedly after her marriage broke up when Harris was just five years old.

After paying tribute to a slew of famous women leaders who fought for the right to vote a hundred years ago almost to the day Harris spoke on the third day of the National Democratic Convention, the first ever Indian-American nominee for Vice President, delivered a paean to her mother.

“There’s another woman, whose name isn’t known, whose story isn’t shared. Another woman whose shoulders I stand on. And that’s my mother—Shyamala Gopalan Harris,” Harris began. “She came here from India at age 19 to pursue her dream of curing cancer. At the University of California Berkeley, she met my father, Donald Harris—who had come from Jamaica to study economics. They fell in love in that most American way—while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s,” Harris said to Democrats around the country for whom she is not a household name and who may not know the details of her upbringing or her race and ethnicity.

But her speech generated enthusiastic responses not just from regular Indian-Americans but the influencers who have contributed to shaping the reputation of this community in America.

Kamala Harris, left, sister Maya, center with mother Shyamala Gopalan in undated photo on Facebook Kamala Harris

“As someone who speaks for a living, I would have been beyond terrified to have to follow that @BarackObama speech. Terrified beyond all words. But @KamalaHarris pulled it off–a fabulous speech in which Americans learned who she is and what she is about. Flawless delivery. Wow.” That was the tweet from Neal Katyal, former principal solicitor general of the United States, and top lawyer in the country.

” She is making us cry- our (sic) of sheer delight and wonderment. I want this America,” tweeted Shekar Narasimhan, founder of AAPI Victory Fund, a political action committee that has pushed for more recognition of Indian-American voters and their importance in battleground states.

Maryland Assemblyman Kumar Barve told News India Times “Kamala Harris obviously values both of her ethnic backgrounds and feels both of them. For those people who were questioning tat, it really put to rest the notion of how deeply she feels it. She wouldn’t use a Tamil word in the middle of her acceptance speech if she didn’t.”

“In the streets of Oakland and Berkeley, I got a stroller’s-eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis called “good trouble.” When I was 5, my parents split and my mother raised us mostly on her own,” Harris said.

“Like so many mothers, she worked around the clock to make it work—packing lunches before we woke up—and paying bills after we went to bed. Helping us with homework at the kitchen table—and shuttling us to church for choir practice,” she added.

“She made it look easy, though I know it never was. My mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values that would chart the course of our lives. She raised us to be proud, strong Black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage,” Harris said.

Kamala Harris Photo Facebook posted Aug. 20, 2019, with the words, “Happy first day of school, Howard University!”

Many Indian-Americans have been critical of what they saw as Harris’ closer identification with her black roots rather than Indian heritage even though she traveled several times to India growing up and spent time with her extended family there.

“We all respect and love our mothers. But for Indian-American voters, they care more about what a person has done and what they can and will do,” said Asheesh Agarwal, member of the Advisory Board of Indian Voices for Trump, a newly-created coalition by the Donald Trump campaign. “President Trump has done a lot for the relationship with India. Biden’s record is not so good. And his (Biden) economy policies are anathema to what Indian-Americans think, like raising taxes for the middle class.”

Her mother, Harris said, “taught us to put family first—the family you’re born into and the family you choose.”

“Family is my husband DougFamily is our beautiful children, Cole and Ella, who as you just heard, call me Momala. Family is my sister. Family is my best friend, my nieces and my godchildren. Family is my uncles, my aunts and my chithis,” the last word in Tamil meaning aunt.

Harris did not know what a Twitter storm that word created until later. MIT Professor Vipin Narang tweeted, “Millions of Americans are googling “chithi,” so next time some @ me that Kamala Harris isn’t proud of her Indian heritage,” ending with a balled fist emoji, referring to those in the community who have complained in the past about Harris not identifying herself enough as an Indian, Narang later noted, “It turns out millions of North Indians had to google it as well!”

“Family is the friends I turned to when my mother—the most important person in my life—passed away from cancer,” Harris said.

“And 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. 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,” said Harris about her mother, a biologist, who died in 2009 at the age of 70, and accomplished seminal work during her lifetime to further cancer research.

“Kamala Harris’ speech showed the components of her as a real person. with a real family and real life journey,” Republican strategist Adi Sathi told News India Times. “For many people the role of her mother has a real appeal,” Sathi agreed, “But I don’t know that her identity will resonate with the Indian-American community as much as people think it will. We look at a President Trump and his going out of the way to work with the Indian-American community, build strategic relations with India,”

Harris said in her speech that her mother’s teachings are what inspired her to become a lawyer, She went on to become a District Attorney, Attorney General of California, and then a United States Senator.

“And at every step of the way, I’ve been guided by the words I spoke from the first time I stood in a courtroom: Kamala Harris, For the People,” she said.

“My mother taught me that service to others gives life purpose and meaning. And oh, how I wish she were here tonight but I know she’s looking down on me from above,” Harris went on. “I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman—all of five feet tall—who gave birth to me at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California. On that day, she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing before you now speaking these words: I accept your nomination for Vice President of the United States of America.”

“I do so, committed to the values my mother taught me,” Harris added before rendering a scathing attack on President Trump’s “failure of leadership”  drawing a contrast with Presidential candidate Biden, crediting him with the getting the historic Violence Against Women Act passed, enact the Assault Weapons Ban, the economic Recovery Act after the recession during the first Obama administration term, the Affordable Care Act, etc.

In an effort to deflect some of the left critics in the party who may see her as more of a moderate, Harris gave a nod to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party led by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and a younger cohort including Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, and Congressman Ro Khanna, D-California, as well as the protests over excessive use of force by some police.

“I’m inspired by a new generation of leadership. You are pushing us to realize the ideals of our nation, pushing us to live the values we share: decency and fairness, justice and love,” Harris said, adding, “We’re all in this fight. You, me, and Joe—together. What an awesome responsibility. What an awesome privilege.”

 

 

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