Kamala Devi Harris was born on October 20, 1964 in Oakland, California. Her mom was Shyamala Gopalan, a native of Chennai, India. Gopalan was the daughter of a diplomat and Indian government official, and she came to the United States in 1960 to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California-Berkeley. Gopalan’s life ambition was to become involved in cancer research, and that dream was ultimately brought to fruition.
Kamala Harris’s father, Donald Harris, was originally from Jamaica. Like Gopalan, Harris was a graduate student at Berkeley in the early 60s. After obtaining his doctorate, he went on to enjoy a long and distinguished career as an economics professor at Stanford University. In addition to their shared interest in education, Gopalan and Harris were each passionate about the cause of civil rights, which was just beginning to make an impact on college campuses at the time they met.
Kamala Harris often reminisces about the times she spent attending civil rights protests with her parents when she was a small child. The Berkeley campus was one of the centers for 60s student-led activism and protests, and Harris has often said her early experiences gave her “A stroller-eye view of the Civil Rights Movement.
Rejecting expectations that she eventually return to India for an arranged marriage, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan married Donald Harris in 1963, immediately after graduating from Cal-Berkeley. The two eventually had two children, both girls: Kamala, born in 1964, and Maya, born in 1966.
Gopalan was a practicing Hindu, and she chose to give her daughters names that reflected her spiritual beliefs. Kamala is another name for Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune, while Kamala’s middle name Devi is a Sanskrit word that means ‘goddess.’ “A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women,” Dr. Gopalan told an interviewer in 2004.
During her childhood, Kamala learned to appreciate her diverse birthright. “I grew up in a strong Indian culture and I was raised in a black community,” she recalls. Along with her sister, she sang in the church choir of an African-American Baptist church. Yet the two girls also frequently visited a Hindu temple to participate in services with their mother.
Throughout her childhood and teen years, Harris and the family frequently traveled to both India and Jamaica. Each parent wanted her and her younger sister Maya to learn more about their heritage, connect with extended family and keep in touch with their roots. These trips were formative experiences for Harris, who became especially close with her maternal grandparents during her visits to India. “My earliest memories are of walking along the beach with my grandfather and his friends,” she recalls. “They were retired public servants who spent their careers trying to make India a better place.”
Her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, worked in India’s equivalent to the U.S. Department of State. Among his many experiences traveling the globe, he spent time serving as an advisor to the government of Zambia in Africa. Her maternal grandmother, Rajam Gopalan, was also involved in public affairs in India. She participated in campaigns to help poor women gain greater access to birth control, at a time when the country’s population was exploding.
Growing up in the company of high achievers and people with a strong social consciousness, it seems that Kamala Harris was destined for a career in public service. She identifies her mom, who enjoyed a long and celebrated career as a cancer researcher, teacher and civil rights activist, as the greatest hero in her life.
But Harris’s childhood was not entirely idyllic. When she was seven and her sister five, her parents separated and eventually divorced. After a long and fairly contentious court battle, an Oakland family court judge granted her mother full custody of both children in 1972.
From this time on, Donald Harris became a sporadic presence in his children’s lives. He didn’t abandon them completely. However, over time his relationships with his daughters became more distant. There were no harsh feelings, but Harris did not have the same kind of influence in their lives as their mother. In 1976, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan Harris accepted a research position at Jewish General Hospital and a teaching position at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where the family remained for the duration of Kamala Harris’s time in school.
Dr. Gopalan Harris stayed in Montreal for 16 years, long after her daughters had returned to the United States. She was credited with some important breakthroughs in her career as a cancer researcher, and never stopped being an inspiration to her daughters even when they were apart. Living in French-speaking Canada, in a cold-weather climate, was a big adjustment for Kamala Harris. Moving there at age 12, she was forced to adjust to classmates who’d grown up in an entirely different culture.
However, by all accounts Harris handled the transition smoothly. She studied at Westmount High School, an English-speaking institution the Montreal suburb of Westmount. Former classmates and friends describe her as a good student who was cheerful, upbeat and confident. Harris “gave off an aura suggesting she was poised for success,” said ex-classmate Paul Olioff, who is now an academic advisor at McGill University.
Her high school was economically and racially diverse. But Harris found ways to bridge the gaps in outlook and life experience that kept other kids apart. “Westmount High was a very racially segregated school when we attended,” Olioff explained. “Ms. Harris transcended this, as there were few students she didn’t get along with.” Dean Smith, another former classmate asked to share his memories of Harris, identified her as a “hard-studying student who helped classmates with schoolwork and preferred to spend time with average kids rather than moneyed elites.”
In addition to her reputation as a good student, Harris was also recognized for her dancing skills. She joined with other students in an amateur dancing group called Midnight Magic, which performed at community events and senior citizen’s centers and was active raising money for charity.
As for Harris herself, she remembers her five years living in Montreal with some fondness. But she never really accepted it as home. In her senior-year high school yearbook, she listed “California” as her most cherished memory. When asked a few years ago by a Montreal newspaper reporter to speak about her time living in Quebec, she said that she and her sister had made friends there and had learned to speak a limited amount of French. But “we were happy to return home to California,” she admitted.
Before making that return trip to the state of her birth, however, Harris had another stop to make. After graduating from Westmount in 1981 she was determined to continue her education, and perhaps foreshadowing her future as a U.S. senator she chose to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C.
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