Kamala Harris’ Memories of her Warrior Mother Guide her Campaign

This 2007 photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign shows her with her mother, Shyamala, at a Chinese New Year parade. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP)
This 2007 photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign shows her with her mother, Shyamala, at a Chinese New Year parade. (Kamala Harris campaign via AP)

Speaking from the Senate floor for the first time, Kamala Harris expressed gratitude for a woman on whose shoulders she said she stood. In her autobiography, Harris interspersed the well-worn details of her resume with an extended ode to the one she calls “the reason for everything.” And taking the stage to announce her presidential candidacy , she framed it as a race grounded in the compassion and values of the person she credits for her fighting spirit.

Though a decade has passed since Shyamala Gopalan died, she remains a force in her daughter’s life and her White House bid. Again and again in the campaign, those who gather around the California senator are hearing mention of the diminutive Indian immigrant the candidate calls her single greatest influence.

“She’s always told the same story,” says friend Mimi Silbert. “Kamala had one important role model, and it was her mother.”

Her mother gave her an early grounding in the civil rights movement and injected in her a duty not to complain but rather to act. And that no-nonsense demeanor on display in Senate hearings over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and more? Onlookers can credit, or blame, Gopalan, a crusader who raised her daughter in the same mold.

Appearing in New York recently, Harris said there were two reasons she was running for president. The first, she said, was a sense of duty to restore truth in justice in the country at an inflection point in history. The second: a mother who responded to gripes with a challenge.

“She’d say, ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?’” Harris told the crowd. “So I decided to run for president of the United States.”

Harris’ parents met as doctoral students at the University of California, Berkeley at the dawn of the 1960s. Her father, a Jamaican named Donald Harris, came to study economics. Her mother studied nutrition and endocrinology.

For two freethinking young people drawn to activism, they landed on campus from opposite sides of the world just as protests exploded around civil rights, the Vietnam War and voting rights. Their paths crossed in those movements, and they fell in love.

At the heart of their activism was a small group of students who met every Sunday to discuss the books of black authors and grassroots activity around the world, from the anti-apartheid Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa to liberation movements in Latin America to the black separatist preaching of Malcolm X in the U.S.

A member of the group, Aubrey Labrie, says the weekly gathering was one in which figures such as Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro were admired, and would later provide some inspiration to the founders of the Black Panther Party. Gopalan was the only one in the group who wasn’t black, but she immersed herself in the issues, Labrie says. She and Harris wowed him with their intellect.

“I was in awe of the knowledge that they seemed to demonstrate,” said Labrie, who grew so close to the family that the senator calls him “Uncle Aubrey.”

The couple married, and Gopalan Harris gave birth to Kamala and then Maya two years later. Even with young children, the duo continued their advocacy.

As a little girl, Harris says she remembers an energetic sea of moving legs and the cacophony of chants as her parents made their way to marches. She writes of her parents being sprayed with police hoses, confronted by Hells Angels and once, with the future senator in a stroller, forced to run to safety when violence broke out.

Sharon McGaffie, a family friend whose mother, Regina Shelton, was a caregiver for the girls, remembers Gopalan Harris speaking to her daughters as if they were adults and exposing them to worlds often walled off to children, whether a civil rights march or a visit to mom’s laboratory or a seminar where the mother was delivering a speech.

“She would take the girls and they would pull out their little backpacks and they would be in that environment,” says McGaffie.

A few years into the marriage, Harris’ parents divorced. The senator gives the pain of the parting only a few words in her biography. Those who are close to her describe her childhood as happy, the smells of her mother’s cooking filling the kitchen and the sound of constant chatter and laughter buffeting the air.

The mother’s influence on her girls grew even greater, and friends of Harris say they see it reflected throughout her life.

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