She identifies simply as “American”
The 56-year-old was born in Oakland, California, to two immigrant parents: cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan and economics professor Donald J Harris. Originally from India and Jamaica respectively, the pair met during their graduate studies at Berkeley, divorcing when Harris was a child. While the vice-president has talked about being steeped in both her parents’ cultures growing up, attending both a Black Baptist church and a Hindu temple, she identifies simply as a “proud American”.
Her mother chose her name to make a feminist statement
Kamala—pronounced “comma-la”—means lotus in Sanskrit, and is also another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, who is associated with prosperity, luck, and beauty. Harris’s middle name, Devi, is the name of the powerful goddess Devi, who is an emblem of the divine female.
She made frequent visits to India as a child
Harris’s maternal grandparents encouraged her to pursue a civil service role as an adult. Her grandfather PV Gopalan—whom she has called one of her “favourite people in the world”—fought for Indian independence as a high-ranking government official, while her grandmother, Rajam Gopalan, travelled to rural areas of India to teach impoverished communities about birth control.
“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, proud Black women”
Her interest in civil rights stretches back to her youth
Harris’s parents met through the civil rights movement at Berkeley—and Harris and her younger sister Maya attended marches with them throughout their childhood (they divorced when Kamala was seven, and she was raised by her mother). In her first year of school, she attended Thousand Oaks Elementary—which had been racially integrated just one year before. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters,” Harris writes in her 2019 autobiography The Truths We Hold, describing Shyamala as a force of nature. She died in 2009. “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, proud Black women.”
She attended an HBCU
While Harris attended high school in Montreal, where her mother had taken a job at McGill University, she returned to the US to earn her bachelor’s degree in political science and economics from Howard University in Washington DC—part of the country’s network of historically Black colleges and universities. She has often cited her years at Howard as being deeply formative: she ran for student council, became a key member of the debate team, served as the chair of the economics society and joined the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. “There’s something special about the investment that an HBCU places in its students,” she told Essence earlier this year. “It’s about the nurturing. It’s about refining. It’s about all that goes into making someone transition from being a child into an adult. And in that way, it’s very tough love.” Harris then went on to study law at the University of California, Hastings.
Her career so far has been predictably impressive—though not entirely without controversy
After passing the bar, Harris joined the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, where she focused on sex crimes, before going on to serve as the District Attorney for San Francisco from 2003 onwards. During her first three years in the role, the conviction rate jumped from 52 to 67 percent. After two terms, she ran for Attorney General of California, becoming the first African-American and the first female to serve in the role.
Harris has been accused of doing too little to foster criminal reform during her tenure—although those who worked with her have argued that she was far more progressive than many realise—refusing to prosecute marijuana sales cases as felonies (and declining to tackle possession cases at all); creating the Back on Track programme for young offenders; and refusing to call for the death penalty in a number of high-profile cases.
“The reason I made a very conscious decision to become a prosecutor is because I am the child of people who, like those today, were marching and shouting on the streets for justice,” she was quoted as saying in The New York Times in an interview published in August 2020. “When I made the decision to become a prosecutor, it was a very conscious decision. And the decision I made was, I’m going to try and go inside the system, where I don’t have to ask permission to change what needs to be changed.”
She ran for president before joining Joe Biden’s ticket
Harris announced her candidacy for president on Good Morning America on 21 January 2019 (Martin Luther King Jr Day in the US)—withdrawing her candidacy towards the end of the year due to a lack of funding and low polling numbers. In August, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced her as his running mate, and on 7 November, when Biden won the presidency, she became his second-in-command.
Her younger sister is also a force to be reckoned with
A fellow lawyer and a political commentator for MSNBC, Maya was one of three senior advisors to work on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign—and later oversaw Harris’s presidential bid. She also previously headed up the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
She’s already made political history in a number of ways
In 2017, Harris became the first South Asian-American senator in US history, as well as the second female African-American ever to be elected to the senate. Now, Harris becomes the first person of colour to be elected vice-president, as well as the first woman to take on the role.
She enjoys cooking
Harris was set up on a blind date with her now husband Douglas Emhoff, an entertainment and intellectual-property lawyer in Los Angeles, and a year later, in 2014, they were married. In an interview with Vogue, Emhoff, who has two children from a previous marriage, revealed that Harris regularly planned elaborate meals to cook for the extended family on weekends. “She spends days thinking about the menu, grinding her own pepper, driving all over town just to find that one ingredient that we need,” Emhoff said. “I’ve gotten pretty handy in the kitchen as her sous-chef.” Indian cooking is, naturally, a specialty: in November she cooked masala dosas for a YouTube video with Mindy Kaling.
She’s rewritten the rule book on political style
Like pretty much no other woman before her, Harris has spent much of her time on the campaign trail wearing Converse—and now we will have the pleasure of seeing Harris’s Chuck Taylors in the West Wing. Among her many other talents, Harris deserves our respect for blithely ignoring the “rules” of traditional political dress in favour of a shoe that she has worn for years; she knows all too well that her classic American trainers signal a can-do attitude and a sense of purpose. Instead of feeling pressured to adopt an “appropriate” wardrobe when running for office, future female politicians could see it as a lesson: you can never go wrong by being yourself.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.