Memoirs Biographies

The blooming of Kamala

Penelope MacRae | Updated on November 22, 2021

An engrossing book on Kamala Harris’s political journey

The real miracle is that Kamala Harris has cracked the glass ceiling to reach where she is — just, as the phrase goes, a heartbeat away from the presidency. Black voters didn’t consider her Black enough. Indian voters felt disappointed because she’s always played down her South Asian heritage. And a lot of other voters probably didn’t quite know what to make of her.

Throw in the fact she was a first-term senator who was feeling her way around the Washington jungle. She shone only at hearings of the senate judicial committee where she showed off why she’d built a reputation as a feared prosecuting counsel. It was hardly a cuddly vote-winning image.

On the other side of the scale were factors such as she was obviously smart, she had a million-dollar smile that carried all the way to her eyes and she possibly gave voters the feeling here was a person they could safely vote for.

Chidanand Rajghatta, a veteran correspondent in Washington, is well-positioned to unpick the 56-year-old Harris’s pathbreaking ascent to become the first woman, the first African-American and the first Asian-American vice-president.

Kamala’s remarkable mother

In many ways, though, the most remarkable journey in this absorbing biography: Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman was the one by her mother Shyamala. (The book’s title is inspired by Kamala’s lawyer niece Meena’s T-shirt slogan campaign Phenomenal Woman). In the 1950s, only a few Indians made the trip across the kala pani to study in America.

Shyamala’s experience at 19 was all the more unusual once she reached the University of California Berkeley. Standing in a queue to register for classes in 1958, she began chatting with Cedric Robinson, a Black teenager, who went on to become a doyen of Black Studies. This encounter was the start of a lifelong friendship and, more importantly, an entry into the Black culture most Indians steered away from.

Shyamala took an active part in the Afro-American Association. Her “initiation into the Black community predated the arrival of the Jamaican (Donald Harris) who would become her husband,” notes Rajghatta. This influence was key in explaining why she raised Kamala and her younger sister Maya as Black despite her own south Indian Tamil Brahmin background, he says, though she gave her daughters Indian names to preserve their Indian cultural identity.

Harris, an economics doctoral student, met Shyamala on the Berkeley campus when was studying for her science PhD. United by their civil rights activism, they wed a year later. But the marriage lasted just eight years. The sisters sang in a Black church’s children’s choir. The couple split when Kamala was seven and her sister five amid career conflicts.

Shyamala wanted to pursue her career as a cancer scientist and apparently was unwilling to take a back seat to her husband whose economics teaching career was taking him to different parts of the country.

While the girls visited their father frequently after the divorce and went with him to Jamaica where they met his side of the family, it was Kamala’s mother, “all of five feet nothing but a giant in her life who shaped Kamala into the force she is,” says Rajghatta. Such was Shyamala’s influence there’s rarely a public speech where Kamala doesn’t invoke her mother who died of cancer 12 years ago. Shyamala, as her daughter likes to say, “had a sense of justice imprinted on her soul.”

Black community connect

Kamala’s connection with the Black community became even closer after the divorce when a Black neighbour took the family under her wing.

Shyamala taught her daughters how to cook Indian dishes and took the girls back to see their grandparents in India to keep their Indian connections alive. But she also used to play them Aretha Franklin’s rendition of Nana Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black.’ Kamala said the family regarded the song as an anthem.

Shyamala was a tough taskmaster who didn’t believe in mollycoddling or that meek Black girls won. “If you don’t define yourself, people will try to define you” was one of her favourite phrases. After missing out on a promotion at Berkeley, Shyamala took a research job at McGill University in Montreal where Kamala attended high school. But as soon as Kamala graduated, she raced back to the US to study at Howard University in Washington, DC, an institution known as the “Black Harvard.”

Kamala went on to study law. Unusually, though, the straight-A student flunked the California Bar exam on her first try. Kamala was angry at herself for putting in the “most half-assed performance of my life” but she was in good company: Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton both failed the exam first-time round.

To the dismay of her socially progressive mother, Kamala decided to embark on the unglamorous career of a prosecutor rather than being a public defender, arguing this way she could fix the unequal justice system from the inside. She rejected the binary notion of being soft or tough on crime, insisting the way forward was being “smart” on crime, designing programs to get young offenders back on track. Kamala liked to style herself as a “progressive prosecutor. Detractors, though, said she wasn’t progressive enough.

Her performance led to criticism she was too deferential to police and failed to push hard enough on issues like gay marriage and abolishing the death penalty. But defenders say some of her stands were necessary for her political survival.

When she was 29, she dated Willie Brown, a powerful politician twice her age who was the California assembly speaker. The brief affair led to suggestions, which surface to this day, that he gave her career a timely boost. (What is known is that Brown gave her a BMW.) Still, even if Brown hadn’t appeared in Kamala’s life, Rajghatta says she was already a rising courtroom star. She was elected San Francisco state attorney, moved up to California state attorney-general and became a senator in 2017.

Politics, a blood sport

Her political career was forged in California where politics is a “blood sport,” Kamala recounts, only half-joking. Then, even though she flamed out early in her Democratic presidential nomination run, Joe Biden tapped her to be his vice-presidential running-mate.

Despite her ambush of him over school busing during her campaign for the presidential nomination — implicitly suggesting he was racist — Biden rose above the attack. He’d known Kamala for years, they shared the same “change” agenda and, as Biden said, there was the “sympatico” factor. Undoubtedly Kamala “ticked the most boxes” with her star power and political experience, says Rajghatta in his thorough, well-rounded analysis. “She had electability,” he says.

Now Kamala’s dealing with the reality of being vice-president, traditionally a thankless role, and struggling with historically low 28-per-cent approval ratings from a still angrily gridlocked electorate. Her supporters say she’s been frontloaded with too much work and some of the problems she's been tasked with are intractable like the Mexican border crisis. They also say she’s being attacked because she’s a woman and Black.

Could Kamala turn around her fortunes and win the 2024 Democratic nomination if Biden doesn’t run (he’ll be 82)? Rajghatta says he’s not holding his breath. “The troll mob is already out to get her and it will be relentless,” he says.

(The reviewer is a former Reuters correspondent based in Delhi who writes on international politics, business and health)

Title: Kamala Harris: Phenomenal Woman

Author: Chidanand Rajghatta

Publisher: HarperCollins

Price: ₹599

Click here to read the book on Amazon

Published on November 22, 2021

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