Kamala Harris' parents found common ground in a Black study group after their arrival in US

Washington, DC, United States of AmericaUpdated: Sep 13, 2020, 10:13 PM IST


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A report in The New York Times said that at an off-campus space at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1962, Harris, then a Jamaican Ph.D. Student, addressed a small crowd, drawing parallels between his native country and the US.

A Black study group that focussed on race drew Shyamala Gopalan, mother of Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris, and her husband Donald Harris together when they arrived at the University of California at Berkeley, a media report said.

A report in The New York Times said that at an off-campus space at the University of California at Berkeley in the fall of 1962, Harris, then a Jamaican Ph.D. Student, addressed a small crowd, drawing parallels between his native country and the US.

He spoke about 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.

Gopalan, who was sitting in the audience, found Harris' ideas "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."

Donald Harris recalled in The New York Times report that Gopalan was "a standout in appearance relative to everybody else in the group of both men and women."

Gopalan, raised in India, wanted to hear more of Harris' ideas.

"This was all very interesting to me, and, I daresay, a bit charming," Donald Harris, now 82 and an emeritus professor of economics at Stanford, recalled in written answers to questions. "At a subsequent meeting, we talked again, and at the one after that. The rest is now history."

The NYT report quotes their contemporaries as saying that "As a couple, Don Harris and Shyamala Gopalan Harris stood out, with their upper-crust accents and air of intellectual confidence."

Anne Williams, 76, said she found Donald Harris "reserved and academic in his presentation," difficult to get to know. Gopalan was "warm" and "charming."

Indian-born economist Baron Meghnad Desai described Gopalan as 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.
The NYT report said that Gopalan, the oldest child in a high-achieving Tamil Brahmin family, wanted to be a biochemist but at Lady Irwin College, she was forced to settle for a degree in home science.

Her brother Gopalan Balachandran said that his father and he used to tease Shyamala Gopalan about her studying home science. "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.'"

At Berkeley, Gopalan became part of a Black intellectual study group that met off-campus. "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."

When Harris arrived on campus in 1961, he too fell in with the study group right away, the report said. He 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."

The NYT report added that it was in this group in 1962 that Harris 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.

Gopalan, who had expected to return to India from Berkeley, had later told a local newspaper, "I never came to stay. It's the old story: I fell in love with a guy, we got married, pretty soon kids came."

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

Gopalan, a research scientist who published influential work on the role of hormones in breast cancer, filed for divorce in 1972.

"She was quite unhappy about the separation but she had already got used to that and she didn't want to talk to Don after that," said Balachandran, her brother. "When you love somebody, then love turns into very hard bitterness, you don't even want to talk to them."

Kamala Harris, 55, has written about her parents splitting up in her 2018 memoir "The Truths We Hold'. Harris wrote, "I knew they loved each other very much, but it seemed like they had become like oil and water."

She wrote that "had they been a little older, a little more emotionally mature, maybe the marriage could have survived. But they were so young. My father was my mother's first boyfriend."

Kamala Harris is a Senator from California. She is the first ever black, African American and a person of Indian descent to be nominated as a vice presidential nominee by a major political party in the United States.