A Political Awakening: How Howard University Helped Shape Kamala Harris’ Identity

Kamala Harris, right, protests South African apartheid with classmate Gwen Whitfield on the National Mall in November 1982. (Photo courtesy of Kamala Harris)

The war on drugs had erupted, apartheid was raging, Jesse Jackson would soon make the campus a staging ground for his inaugural presidential bid. Running for student office in 1982 at Howard University — the school that nurtured Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison and Stokely Carmichael — was no joke.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has been known to break the ice with voters by proclaiming the freshman-year campaign in which she won a seat on the Liberal Arts Student Council her toughest political race. Those who were at the university with her are not so sure she is kidding.

It was at Howard that the senator’s political identity began to take shape. Thirty-three years after she graduated in 1986, the university in the nation’s capital, one of the country’s most prominent historically black institutions, also serves as a touchstone in a campaign in which political opponents have questioned the authenticity of her black identity.

“I reference often my days at Howard to help people understand they should not make assumptions about who black people are,” Harris said in a recent interview.

Her Indian-born mother and Jamaican father separated when Harris was 5, and she attended high school in Montreal, where her mother was a cancer researcher at McGill University. But, Harris said, as a teenager, there was no question about her decision to return to the U.S. to attend Howard.

“My mother understood she was raising two black children to be black women,” Harris said in the interview, a line she has often used to settle questions on the subject. Shyamala Gopalan Harris encouraged her daughter to go to Howard, a school her mother knew well, having guest lectured there and having friends on the faculty.

“There was nothing unnatural or in conflict about it at all,” Harris said. “There were a lot of kids at Howard who had a background where one parent was maybe from the Philippines and the other might be from Nairobi,” she added. “Howard encompasses the diaspora.”

Kamala Harris graduated from Howard University in 1986. (Howard University)

The campus during her time was a cauldron of activism and black pride at a moment in history, like now, when most black Americans were feeling alienated and unrepresented by the White House.

Running for student office “was hard core,” said Sonya Lockett, a college friend of Harris. “It was not like, ‘If I win, we’re going to get a water fountain for the student center.’

“Students demanded to know how you feel about what is going on in this country, and where is our place in it,” said Lockett, now an entertainment industry executive. “We saw ourselves as integral to the city and the country and the world. If you did not have an idea of where we were in that ecosystem, you weren’t getting far.”

Campus politics were not always gentle. There were fights over where voting machines would be placed, and the hours they would be open. Student leaders tangled over how aggressively to confront a college administration perceived as too cozy with the Reagan White House.

With the campus located in a Washington neighborhood with a high crime rate and student safety a major issue, the student council race also marked the first election in which Harris, who would go on to become a prosecutor, had to confront the nuances of criminal justice.

While the Reagan administration pushed for expanded prosecutions, “we took a more … holistic look rather than demonizing people at a time when all of us kids were right there in some very impoverished surroundings,” said Jill Louis, a “line sister” of Harris’ when the two pledged the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in Harris’ senior year.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer, attended Howard a decade after Harris; at a campus event this month, he remarked that the school’s history weighed on him every moment he was there and continues to this day:

“You owe people things,” he said after rattling off an intimidating list of alumni who preceded him. “I will owe Howard until the day I die.”

Harris, whose parents took active roles in the civil rights movement through the 1960s and into the 1970s, was familiar with the spirit of activism. But not on the scale of Howard, with so many black intellectuals and activists and future leaders all in the same place.

“We are talking about thousands and thousands of people,” she said. “It was extraordinary.”

When you go to Howard, said longtime Howard political science professor Alvin Thornton, your particular ethnic makeup was irrelevant.

“You were black,” he said. “Not physically. You were black in terms of your sense of responsibility and social relations of what we were trying to overcome. It was a sociological phenomenon as much as a physical phenomenon. It represented change and one’s commitment to it, or not.”

“I very much see Howard in her,” Thornton said of Harris. “These young people come into a culturally and academically reinforcing environment that enables them culturally. They can feel comfortable. They don’t have to question their identity, only grow into it.”

At her freshman orientation, Harris recently told a group of black female entrepreneurs, she was overwhelmed by the sense of possibility upon walking into a giant auditorium packed with overachieving people of color.

“You then are in an environment where everything tells you that you can be great, and you will be given the resources and expectation to achieve that, and the only thing standing in the way of your success will be you,” she said. “You don’t have to be limited by other people’s perceptions of who you are.”

Harris was known on campus, but she was not among the most prominent student leaders. Many of her classmates have more vivid memories of Christopher Cathcart, the hard-charging football player, now a communications consultant, whose tenure as student government president was defined by confrontation with the school administration.

Thornton, who headed the political science department’s undergraduate program, now jokes that he is frantically searching his records and jogging his memory for anecdotes to allow him to claim credit for nurturing the political acumen of Harris, who majored in his field, along with economics.

Those who knew her then say much about Harris on the campaign trail is familiar.

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SOURCE: Los Angeles Times – Evan Halper