Why You Should Know About Shyamala Gopalan, Kamala Harris’ Mom
The internet will remain divided on whether Kamala Harris acknowledges her Indian roots enough. However, Kamala Harris has always acknowledged her Indian-born mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris as someone who taught her to be a strong fearless woman.
“I’m the daughter of a mother who broke down all kinds of barriers. Shyamala Harris was no more than five feet tall, but if you ever met her you would think she was seven feet tall. She had such spirit and tenacity and I’m thankful every day to have been raised by her,” Kamala wrote in an Instagram post earlier in May.
Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a breast cancer researcher and a single mother. In her effort to find a career, she defied all odds and shifted to the US as a 19-year-old with an aim to fulfil her academic interests. For someone born in a middle-class Indian home at that time, this move was pathbreaking and life altering. She fell in love with a man of colour, got married, it was 1963. In her memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala has written, “There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. That is the truth I hold dearest of all”.
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Kamala Harris will be the first Indian American to be nominated as a VP candidate. Harris' mother Shyamala Gopalan immigrated to the America to study and married a Jamaican. Harris made regular visits to her grandparents in Tamil Nadu. Her childhood was grounded in Indian values with her family giving their daughters exposure to both Black and Indian culture. Harris writes: “My mother, grandparents, aunts and uncle instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots … we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture. All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue (Tamil) – which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.” Blurb Pull Out + Picture Credits: IndiaAbroad #shethepeople #kamalaharris #joebidenvppick #shyamalagopalan #stpnews #mayaharris
Gopalan and Harris met as part of a student’s group who met weekly to talk about Black writers, politics and activism, The Mercury News reported. No one from Shyamala’s family could attend her wedding as money at home was tight. Together Donald Harris and Shyamala had two daughters, Kamala and Maya, and then she walked out of the marriage with the kids when things didn’t work out. It takes a lot of conviction to make such life-altering decisions, even today.
“They didn’t fight about money. The only thing they fought about was who got the books,” Kamala wrote in her memoir.
Shyamala Gopalan left India to study nutrition and endocrinology at Berkeley, where she eventually earned a PhD. It was a time when most Indian households didn’t have phone lines. Handwritten letters took two weeks to travel between India and the US, recollected Shyamala’s in an interview with Los Angeles Times.
“My mother and father, they came from opposite sides of the world to arrive in America. One from India and the other from Jamaica in search of a world-class education. But what brought them together was the civil rights movement of the 1960s. And that is how they met as students in the streets of Oakland marching and shouting for this thing called justice in a struggle that continues today,” Kamala Harris said in her opening remarks during first campaign appearance after being selected as Joe Biden’s choice for vice president. The multi-cultural identity shaped her values. Kamala spoke about this in her autobiography when she said about her mother that, “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident black women.”
Adding, “In a country where she had no family, they (the black community) were her family – and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life”.
Kamala also talks about how her mother remained a proud Indian. She says, “All of my mother’s words of affection or frustration came out in her mother tongue (Tamil) – which seems fitting to me, since the purity of those emotions is what I associate with my mother most of all.”
Shyamala went on to work at the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin. Eventually, she became a part of the Special Commission on Breast Cancer. She passed away due to complications from a colon cancer in 2009. She was 70. According to Shyamala’s obituary, “She made substantial contributions to the field of hormones and breast cancer, publishing her research in countless journals and receiving numerous honors…Her discovery sparked a plethora of advancements regarding the role of progesterone and its cellular receptor in breast biology and cancer.”
Picture Credit: India Abroad