WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kamala Harris—the nation’s first female Vice President, and the first Black and Southeast Asian elected to the second highest office in the land—has been preparing for this role all her life.
Her tireless work ethic, unapologetic ambition and desire to serve are among the reasons President Joe Biden selected the former California U.S. Senator, who launched her own presidential campaign in 2019, as his running mate. And as is the case with many strong women, she is the product of a loving family, led by a powerful mother.
Harris speaks often of her late mom, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, Ph.D. She recently referred to her during remarks in Delaware while announcing the appointment of top science advisers in the new Biden administration.
“I feel a certain kinship with the nominees we are bringing together today,” said Harris. “Because my mother was a scientist, an endocrinologist. She was passionate about science, and basically had two goals in her life: To raise her two daughters, and to end breast cancer.”
Harris noted that when she was young, she would accompany her mother to the lab, where she’d be given jobs to do. “And when you’re the daughter of a scientist, science has a way of shaping how you think and see the world. My mother used to talk about the scientific method as if it were a way of life.
“And she instilled in me a fundamental belief in the importance of collecting and analyzing data. Facts.”
To understand the Vice President’s motivation and drive, one has to look no further than her family tree: immigrant parents—a Jamaican father, Donald J. Harris, Ph.D., and an Indian mother. Born in Oakland, Kamala Devi Harris (her first name, pronounced “comma-lah,” means lotus flower) is the eldest of two daughters who were raised among intellectuals and freedom fighters. Theirs was a household where meals would run the gamut from collard greens to curries. Their faith melded Hindu and Baptist practices. Activists would come to dinner and strategize.
“My parents met at Berkeley,” Harris told this reporter for an ESSENCE Magazine profile in 2016. “Mom was a scientist with a Ph.D., and my father was a professor of economics at Stanford. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, marching and shouting for justice. We grew up always being told that you have a responsibility to serve.”
Harris’s younger sister, Maya, is also an attorney and a top political guru who led her sister’s former presidential campaign, and that of Hillary Clinton.
Harris previously told ESSENCE that she became fascinated by the legal profession and the role that law played in empowering the citizenry. “My heroes were lawyers—Constance Baker Motley, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall.”
When it was time for college, she followed in the footsteps of some of her legal idols and attended historically Black Howard University in the nation’s capital. There, she joined the debate team, pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., ran for a student office, and reveled in the way that she and her peers defied expectations.
“I loved my time at Howard,” said Harris, who has spoken with ESSENCE (and this reporter) many times in person and by phone. “It was just a special place. Being there not only laid the foundation for my political career, it also let me know that there was a place out there that wanted to invest in people who looked like me, nurture people who looked like me and provide people who looked like me, my sister or [relatives] with the tools to succeed.”
After earning an undergraduate degree in political science and economics, Harris attended the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Post-graduation, she launched her career as an assistant district attorney in Alameda County, California. In 2003, she was elected district attorney of San Francisco, easily defeating the incumbent. She served two terms (from 2004 to 2011) before pursuing statewide office and winning an election that would catapult her into the attorney general’s office in 2010. She was elected to the Senate in 2017–only the second Black woman in that chamber. Along the way, she sponsored or supported legislation ranging from sweeping criminal justice reform to an anti-lynching bill, and measures impacting women and girls.
Harris has long been a champion for equality and eschewing any form of discrimination based on age, race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Whenever one speaks with Harris, there is a sense that people are important. Those personal and professional philosophies are in part attributed to the worldview that Harris’s late mother, described by a family friend as “brilliant, graceful, fierce,” instilled.
Harris’s parents divorced when the girls were still young, and although her father was involved, Harris’s mother handled most of the parenting duties. The tight-knit trio experienced countless adventures, some that took them around the world. For instance, they lived for a time in Canada, where Dr. Harris held a research position at a Montreal hospital. They also visited family in India.
When Harris’s mom succumbed to cancer in 2009, it was devastating. Today, she is often surrounded by her family—Doug Emhoff, a fellow attorney, whom she married in 2014; two stepchildren who call her “Momala;” her sister and brother in law; niece Meena Harris and her family, including two daughters; and other loved ones.
When asked if her incredibly full plate of work, family, faith and mentoring ever took a toll, Harris previously told ESSENCE, it did not. She invoked the names of Harriet Tubman and other African-American heroines. “My mother always told me that you can be the first to achieve something, but make sure you’re not the last.”
Today, Harris often encourages and recognizes other women. In her VP acceptance speech in November, she shouted out Black women and other women of color.
And during the recent science advisers announcement, Harris noted the Biden administration, “will make sure we are investing in STEM education and the next generation of scientists, including women scientists and scientists of color.”
She spoke proudly of the “world-renowned scientists and distinguished experts” who are joining the administration and shouted out a sister scientist.
“A few weeks ago, I got the first dose of my coronavirus vaccine,” said Harris. “It was the Moderna vaccine, and it was developed with the National Institutes of Health by a team that was co-led by a 34-year-old Black woman named Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett.” Harris continued: “I have a message for all the little girls and boys out there, who dream of growing up to be superheroes. Superheroes aren’t just figments of our imagination,” she said. “They’re walking among us. They’re teachers, doctors and scientists. …And you can grow up to be like them, too.”
Harris closed that day with this: “So, dream big, lead with conviction, and see yourselves as the superheroes of tomorrow—because that’s who you are. See yourselves that way and pursue your dreams, not only for your sake, but for ours. Our country needs you.”