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The ‘Most American’ love story of Kamala Harris’ parents

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By Ellen Barry

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 United States.

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 extreme social inequality.

At 24, Donald J. Harris was already professorial, as reserved as the Anglican acolyte he had once been. 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 a tiny Indian scientist wearing a sari and sandals — the only other foreign student to show up for a talk on race in America. She was, he recalled, “a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women.”

Shyamala Gopalan had been born the same year as Harris, in another British colony on the other side of the planet. But her view of the colonial system was more sheltered, the view of a senior 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, in written answers to questions. “At a subsequent meeting, we talked again, and at the one after that. The rest is now history.”

Sen. Kamala Harris often tells the story of her parents’ romance. They were idealistic foreign graduate students who were swept up in the U.S. civil rights movement — a variation of the classic American immigration story of huddled masses welcomed on its shores.

That description, however, barely scratches the surface of Berkeley in the early 1960s. The community where they met was a crucible of radical politics, as the trade union left overlapped with early Black nationalist thinkers.

It brought a wave of Black undergraduates, many the descendants of sharecroppers or enslaved people who had migrated from Texas and Louisiana, into conversation with students from countries that had fought off colonial powers.

Members of the study group that drew them together in 1962, known as the Afro American Association, would help build the discipline of Black studies, introduce the holiday of Kwanzaa and establish the Black Panther Party.

Long after the particular intensity of the early ’60s passed, the community it created endured.

Kamala Harris, who declined to comment for this story, was one of the more moderate Democrats in the 2020 presidential field and has cast her political outlook in decidedly pragmatic terms.

“I’m not trying to restructure society,” she said last summer. “I’m just trying to take care of the issues that wake people up in the middle of the night.”

Still, at high-profile moments — including when she accepted the vice presidential nomination — she has noted the lasting influence of her parents’ circle at Berkeley. For Gopalan and Donald Harris, those friendships would change everything.

‘I Had to Go There’

For decades, the brightest students from British colonies like Jamaica and India had been sent, by reflex, to Britain to pursue advanced degrees. But and Gopalan were different. Each had a compelling reason to want an American education.

In Gopalan’s case, the trouble was that she was a woman.

Gopalan, the oldest child in a high-achieving Tamil Brahmin family, wanted to be a biochemist. But at Lady Irwin College, founded by the British to provide an education in science to Indian women, she had been forced to settle for a degree in home science. Her brother and father thought it was hilarious.

“My father and I used to tease her like nobody’s business,” said her brother, Gopalan Balachandran, who would go on to earn a doctorate in computer science and economics. “We would say, ‘What do you study in home science? Do they teach you to set up plates for dinner?’ She used to get angry and laugh. She would say, ‘You don’t know what I’m studying.’”

His sister died in 2009. But in retrospect, he realizes she must have been seething.

“She would have been frustrated like hell,” he said.

But she had a plan: In America — unlike India or the United Kingdom — it was still possible to apply for a degree in biochemistry, her brother said. She presented her father with a fait accompli: She had been admitted to the University of California at Berkeley.

Her father was astonished, her brother said, but not opposed. “He was only worried; none of us had been abroad. He said, ‘I don’t know anybody in the States. I certainly don’t know anybody in Berkeley.’ She said, ‘Father, don’t worry,’” he said. He offered to pay for her first year of studies.

Eight thousand miles away, in 1961, something similar occurred with Harris, who was seeking a doctorate in economics.

When he was awarded a prestigious scholarship granted by the British colonial government, it was assumed he would study in Britain, like the recipients who had preceded him.

But Harris didn’t want to go to Britain. His early education had marinated him in British culture, all those obedient choruses of “Rule, Brittania.” (“Read the words; you’ll be astonished!” he said.) He began to see, he said, how Britain’s “static rigidity of pomp, ceremony and class” had been transplanted onto plantation society in Jamaica.

No, he was drawn to the U.S.

As a teenager he had listened to big-band jazz music broadcast from the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba, and stumbled onto a late-night rhythm and blues broadcast from WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee. To him, the U.S. looked — “from a distance and perhaps naively,” he said — like a “lively and evolving dynamic of a racially and ethnically complex society.”

UC Berkeley had come to his attention in a news story about student activists traveling to the South to campaign for civil rights.

“Further investigation of information about this university convinced me I had to go there,” he said.

Using the scholarship to study in the U.S. was such a “grave departure from custom and tradition,” he said, that the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education wrote for advice to an eminent West Indian professor, Sir Arthur Lewis, who was teaching economics at Manchester University. The deliberation took so long that classes had already started when the economist’s letter of approval arrived.

“I was overjoyed,” Harris recalled. Two weeks into the semester, he boarded a plane for San Francisco. A meeting had been set in motion.

Finding a Group

Shyamala Gopalan fell into important friendships at Berkeley right away.

As she stood in line to register for classes, in the fall of 1959, the person standing behind her was Cedric Robinson, a Black teenager from Oakland.

In 1960, there were fewer than 100 Black students in a student body of 20,000, historian Donna Murch wrote in her book “Living for the City: Migration, Education and the Rise of the Black Panther Party.”

Robinson, whose grandfather had fled Alabama in the 1920s to escape a lynching, was the first in his family to enroll in college. “As a Black kid from Oakland, he didn’t even know what one did to get into the university,” recalled his widow, Elizabeth.

The woman in front of him made an impression. Gopalan, his elder by two years, often wore a sari in those days, and acquaintances said they thought she came from royalty; that’s how she carried herself. When Robinson stepped up to the desk, the registrar assumed he was a graduate student from Africa and asked, politely, if his country was also paying his tuition.

Robinson, who died in 2016, thought that was hilarious, said historian Robin D.G. Kelley. He would tell that story over the years as he went on to earn a master’s and a doctorate, then tenure at the University of California at Santa Barbara, writing five books along the way. He and Gopalan would form a lifelong friendship.

When he wrote his best-known book, “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition,” in 1983, he listed the old friends who had helped him formulate his ideas. They were all Black, except for Gopalan.

They would both become part of a Black intellectual study group that met in the off-campus house of Mary Agnes Lewis, an anthropology student.

The group, later known as the Afro American Association, was “the most foundational institution in the Black Power movement,” said Murch, who devoted two chapters to it in her book.

This was no casual book club. Reading was assigned, and if you failed to keep up with it you would pay. At one discussion on existentialism, community college student Huey Newton — the future co-founder of the Black Panther Party — was chastised for not having done the reading, recalled Margot Dashiell, 78, who went on to become a sociology professor at Laney College.

“He came back the next time and he was fully prepared,” she said.

The group would later limit its membership to people of African descent, refusing admission to the white partner of a Black member, Murch wrote.

But as a former colonial subject and a person of color, there was no question that Gopalan belonged, other members said in interviews.

“She was part of the real brotherhood and sisterhood; there was never an issue,” said Aubrey LaBrie, who went on to teach courses on Black nationalism at San Francisco State University. “She was just accepted as part of the group.”

In 1961, when Harris arrived on campus, he, too, fell in with the study group right away.

On one of his first days at Berkeley, he said, he spotted a Black architecture student holding a hand-painted sign, staging a one-man demonstration against apartheid in South Africa, and introduced himself. The student turned out to be Kenneth Simmons, a “guiding light” in the Afro American Association, along with Lewis and Robinson, he said.

Harris described the study group as an oasis, his introduction “to the realities of African American life in its truest and rawest form, its richness and complexity, wealth and poverty, hope and despair.”

It was in that company, in the fall of 1962, that he met his future wife. “We talked then, continued to talk at a subsequent meeting, and at another, and another,” he said. The following year they were married.

Until then Gopalan had expected to return to India, she reflected years later. “I never came to stay,” she told a reporter for SF Weekly. “It’s the old story: I fell in love with a guy; we got married; pretty soon kids came.”

Live-Action Politics

As a couple, Harris and Gopalan Harris stood out, with their upper-crust accents and air of intellectual confidence, their contemporaries said. Anne Williams, 76, who was still in her teens when they met, found Harris “reserved and academic in his presentation,” difficult to get to know. Gopalan Harris was “warm” and “charming.”

“You could tell she was ‘for the people,’ quote unquote, even though she had an aura of royalty about her,” she said. “Here was a woman, deeply brown, and yet she could have flowed from one set to another in terms of race.”

Baron Meghnad Desai, 80, an Indian-born economist, recalls meeting the couple on the steps of a house as they all made their way in to a dinner party. In those days, he said, “we were an argumentative lot. We could argue about politics in many countries.”

Gopalan Harris was a passionate debater, “fiery and radical but not Marxist in any sense.” Her husband, he recalled, “did take a serious interest in radical political economy, but he was a calm and patient arguer.”

“There was no doubt about that, they were very much together very much in love,” he said.

In 1963 and 1964, five members of the group joined a trip to Cuba organized by the Student Committee for Travel to Cuba, in defiance of a State Department travel ban, to see how Afro Cubans lived under Castro’s government. Williams and another member, James L. Lacy, recalled first hearing about the trip at a gathering organized by the Harrises.

“Those of us who called ourselves nationalists, we were very much encouraging the people of Cuba and South America and Central America to do what they were doing,” said Lacy, 85, a retired professor.

Harris said he did not recall taking part in any activism around Cuba, which could have jeopardized their immigration status. “We were certainly very much aware of and scrupulously careful about following the rules and regulations governing our role as foreign students,” he wrote.

Protests around civil rights, however, were a big part of the young couple’s life. In her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, Kamala Harris said that her parents “fell in love in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”

For foreign students — many coming from countries with strong left-wing student movements — the rise in activism made them feel at home, said Indian economist Amartya Sen, 86, who was teaching at Berkeley at the time and befriended the couple.

“Suddenly, America felt less like an alien country,” said Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1998. “Now they had a lot of friends, and they were growing roots.”


‘Those Ties Became the Village’
By the time the couple’s first child, Kamala, was born in 1964, political tides had begun to shift again.

White students had jumped into protest with both feet, rejecting the establishment and the old-fashioned mores of the 1950s. Support for third-world liberation was giving way, gradually, to demands for the political right of free speech. In 1966, seemingly out of nowhere, an actor named Ronald Reagan awakened a sleepy conservative electorate and defeated California’s Democratic governor.

The Harrises’ marriage would fray as Harris took short-term teaching positions at two different universities in Illinois. When he won a tenure-track position at the University of Wisconsin, Gopalan Harris settled, instead, with her children in Oakland and West Berkeley.

Harris’ career would flourish. A left-wing critic of neoclassical economic theory, he was a popular professor and became the first Black scholar to receive tenure in Stanford’s economics department. But a deep freeze had settled in the marriage.

Gopalan Harris, a research scientist who published influential work on the role of hormones in breast cancer, filed for divorce in 1972. The split left her so angry that, for years, she barely interacted with Harris. Kamala Harris has recalled that, when she invited both her parents to her high school graduation, she feared that her mother would not show up.

Into the vacuum stepped Gopalan Harris’ old friends, connections from the Berkeley study group.

She was a single, working mother of two in a country where she had no close relatives. Not until her oldest daughter was in high school could she afford a down payment on her own home, something she desperately wanted, Kamala Harris wrote in her memoir.

A web of support — from day care, to church, to godparents and piano lessons — radiated out from the Afro American Association.

“Those ties became the village that supported her in rearing the children,” said Dashiell, the sociology professor who was a member of the discussion group. “I don’t mean financially. They surrounded those children.”

LaBrie introduced Gopalan Harris to his aunt, Regina Shelton, who ran a day care center in West Berkeley. Shelton, who had been born in Louisiana, became a pillar of the young family’s life, eventually renting them an apartment upstairs from the day care center.

Gopalan Harris often worked late, recalled Carole Porter, 56, a childhood friend of Kamala Harris. She was intensely focused on her work, Porter said.

“Shyamala didn’t play,” she said. “Being an immigrant, 5 feet tall, and having an accent — when things like that happen to you, and you face stuff, that toughens you up.”

But there was always a snack and a hug at Shelton’s. If it got too late, the sleepy children would go to bed at her house, or Shelton would send her daughters to tuck them in at home. One of Kamala Harris’ favorite stories from childhood is of preparing a batch of lemon squares with salt instead of sugar; Shelton, her face puckered, said they were delicious.

In the years since, Kamala Harris has often reflected that her immigrant mother’s chosen family — Black families one generation removed from the segregated South — powerfully shaped her as a politician. When she took the oath of office to become California’s attorney general, and then a U.S. senator, she asked to lay her hand on Shelton’s Bible.

“In office and into the fight,” she wrote in an essay last year, “I carry Mrs. Shelton with me always.”

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