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The ‘most American’ love story of Kamala’s parents

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The ‘most American’ love story of Kamala’s parents

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NEW YORK: At an off-campus space at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1962, a tall, thin Jamaican doctoral student addressed a small crowd, drawing parallels between his native country and the US. He told the group, a roomful of black students, that he had grown up observing British colonial power in Jamaica, the way a small number of whites had cultivated a “native black elite” in order to mask social inequality.
At 24, Donald J Harris was already professorial. But his ideas were edgy. One member of the audience found them so compelling that she came up to him after the speech and introduced herself. She was an Indian scientist wearing a sari — the only other foreign student to show up for the talk on race in America. She was, he recalled, “a standout in appearance relative to everybody else”. Shyamala Gopalan had been born the same year as Harris, in another British colony. But her view of the colonial system was more sheltered, the view of a 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. “At a subsequent meeting, we talked again, and at the one after that. The rest is now history.”
Senator Kamala Harris often tells the story of her parents’ romance. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, she said her parents “fell in love in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s”. In 1959, while registering for classes, Shyamala would make important friends. She would become a part of a black intellectual study group which would help build the discipline of black studies and establish the Black Panther Party. The group, later known as the Afro American Association, was “the most foundational institution in the black Power movement,” said historian Donna Murch.
As a former colonial subject and a person of colour, there was no question that Shyamala belonged, other members said. In 1961, when Harris arrived on campus, he, too, fell in with the study group. It was in that company, in 1962, that he met his future wife. They were married the following year. By the time the couple’s first child, Kamala, was born in 1964, political tides had begun to shift and the marriage had started to fray. When he won a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin, Shyamala settled with her kids in California. Shyamala, a scientist who published work on the role of hormones in breast cancer, filed for divorce in 1972.

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