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When Kamala Harris was 5 years old, her parents separated and her mother moved with Kamala and her sister, Maya, to a working-class African-American neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif. It was a move that shaped the life of the future vice presidential candidate, who identifies as Black, and if elected will be the first Black woman to hold that office.
Shyamala Gopalan, Harris’s mother, was born and raised in Chennai, India. After arriving in Berkeley in 1958 as a 19-year-old graduate student — in an era when Indian-Americans were a much smaller community than they are today — she married a fellow student, Donald Harris, who was from Jamaica. Gopalan was swept up in the civil rights movement and in the vibrant Black cultural, social and political scene in Berkeley and Oakland.
After the split, on her own with two young children and coping with a demanding academic career, Gopalan turned to a close friend from Berkeley, Aubrey LaBrie — Uncle Aubrey now to Harris — for help.
LaBrie, who is Black, brought Gopalan to see his aunt, Regina Shelton. Shelton owned three houses on a single block in Berkeley, and ran a small nursery school in one of them. Gopalan and her daughters moved into an apartment above the nursery. Shelton would ultimately become a virtual second mother to the Harris girls because Gopalan’s career as a cancer researcher required her to travel frequently.
In her autobiography, “The Truths We Hold,” Harris wrote that her mother understood that America would see Kamala and Maya as Black, and so she was “determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud Black women.”
LaBrie, now 83, recalls idyllic years when Kamala and Maya played with the other Black children his aunt looked after, and became like little sisters to Shelton’s own children. Shelton’s family owned a small farm in a nearby California town and the Harris children would visit there to pick pumpkins and chase rabbits with the Shelton cousins, he recalled.
Shelton, who died in 1999, would take Kamala and Maya along to her “old school Baptist church” in West Oakland every Sunday, LaBrie said. The church was founded by the Rev. Elton Pointer, father of the well-known R&B group the Pointer Sisters, and it had a rollicking choir which young Kamala joined. The Bible on which Harris has taken all her oaths of office is the same Bible Shelton used at church all her life; LaBrie brought the Bible to Washington for Harris when she was sworn in to the Senate and then took it back home to Shelton’s daughter.
“That’s been her amulet so to speak, her oracle, my aunt’s Bible,” LaBrie told Yahoo News in an interview.
Shelton, who grew up poor in Louisiana and came to Richmond, Calif., to work in the shipyards as a young woman, taught Harris how to cook soul food, offered career advice and never stopped being a mother figure to her, Shelton’s family members said.
But Harris was also very much the daughter of Gopalan, who had traveled halfway around the world to pursue a career in science, when that was still an exotic choice for a young woman from India.
G. Balachandran, Gopalan’s brother, who is 79 and lives in New Delhi, recalls his sister’s toughness.
“She knew what she wanted, and she’d do all the work on her own and then only tell people later what she did,” Balachandran said in an interview with Yahoo News. He adds that Kamala “absolutely revered her mother.”
Balachandran said that when Gopalan was dying of cancer in 2009, he flew to California to spend two months with her. Shortly after returning to New Delhi after this long visit, he received a call from Kamala, asking him to come right back to Oakland because her mother wanted to see him again. He tried to beg off since his sister was slated to fly to India to die at home with her mother and sister the following week, but Kamala wouldn’t take no for an answer. He now realizes she knew she wasn’t going to make it. By the time he got back home after the brief second trip, she was dead. Balachandran said he is happy Harris pushed him to come back.
“She died after she saw me,” he said.
Balachandran said he and Gopalan were very close and loved to play pranks as kids. By the time she was a young adult, she was pushing her parents to allow her to study at Berkeley. Balachandran said that Gopalan made her case and his father promised to support her for a year at Berkeley, but said then she was on her own. She went and got a scholarship to pay for her subsequent years, Balachandran said. The path was not easy.
“She was a woman studying biochemistry and endocrinology in the late ’50s and the early ’60s, when there were very few women scientists,” Balachandran said. “And then to see a brown woman going for a PhD in biochemistry and endocrinology, obviously people would have been saying, ‘What is this woman doing here? She should be in India taking care of her children.’”
Balachandran said his sister never complained about the bias; instead, she marched and demonstrated.
“If it bothered her, she said, ‘I don’t sit around bothered. I do something about it.’ That’s what she always told Kamala: ‘Don’t sit around moping why is this so. Do something about it,’” Balachandran said. “My parents taught us and Shyamala taught her children, ‘Be what you are. Don’t take s*** from anybody.”
Shyamala taught her daughters not to judge people based on how they looked, their religion, what they ate or anything else focused on differences, Balachandran said. And she wanted them to be prepared to encounter racism.
“Always she told them how the white Americans feel and how they should respond,” Balachandran said. “She wanted her children to know how to fight for themselves and she knew they had to. ... She wanted to impress upon them the understanding that being Black makes no difference and you should fight for your rights. I think that probably the first public function they attended was a civil rights demonstration.”
The day after Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s selection for vice president, Maya Harris posted a picture of both sisters as young girls, captioned with a quote from their mother: “Don’t you let anyone tell you who you are,” it read. “You tell them who you are.”
LaBrie recalls his friend in much the same way. In his eulogy for her, he noted that (unlike people who don’t suffer fools gladly) “she didn’t suffer fools at all.”
LaBrie said there was always okra or gumbo on the stove at Shelton’s house, which he frequently visited with Gopalan and Kamala’s father, Donald, when they were all students. The group would often meet on campus to attend a rally and then make their way over to the house for food. Years later, after Kamala’s parents split up and Shelton began babysitting her, sometimes for days at a time, Kamala, still in grade school, would sit in the Shelton kitchen and talk about current events, LaBrie recalled.
Not long after the Harris girls moved in, LaBrie said the family decided they wanted to make a bigger effort to expose the Shelton cousins as well as Kamala and her sister to African-American culture. LaBrie’s brother gave the little group an acronym: CACTUS, or Cultural Awareness Come Together Unity Session. The families would take field trips to museums featuring exhibits about African-American artists and other culturally relevant fare.
“We’d have little discussion sessions rotating at different people’s houses and then we’d intersperse it with music,” LaBrie recalled.
LaBrie said that Gopalan would often come along on CACTUS outings, but sometimes couldn’t because she was traveling. But she very strongly identified with the civil rights movement, he said, and upon arriving at Berkeley, she quickly joined his circle of friends, all of them, except for her, African-American.
“Ideologically, most of us in the group considered ourselves Blacks in the United States, as part of the Third World movement for liberation, and so she fit in,” LaBrie said. “We were comrades.”
Sharon McGaffie, 69, is Shelton’s daughter and LaBrie’s cousin. She told Yahoo News she thinks of Maya and Kamala Harris as her sisters, and would help her mother take care of the girls when Gopalan had to be away. After the family moved to Canada when Harris was 12, McGaffie recalled that Maya and Kamala would come visit in the summer.
“They would stay long periods of time when Shyamala was working in Canada,” McGaffie said. “They’d look forward to the summers, kind of like coming to your grandmother’s house for the summer.”
The Shelton home was the kind of place, McGaffie said, where food was on the stove and Motown music was on the radio all the time — except on Sundays, when the song selection was gospel music.
McGaffie said her mother mentored Gopalan as a young mother and grew very close to her.
“They just became a part of our family,” McGaffie told Yahoo News in an interview. “She just connected so with my mother and they just became very close. ... I think it was a connection because Shyamala’s mother wasn’t here in this country.”
Kamala stayed close to Shelton until she died, McGaffie said.
“When she was getting a new job she would come and talk with my mom about it,” McGaffie recalled.
McGaffie, like everyone who knew Gopalan, says she was a formidable personality.
“She was very strong, very aggressive, very serious about her work, very serious about her activism in the community and what her expectations were,” McGaffie said. “She was intense.”
Mina Bissell, a former colleague and friend of Gopalan’s, recalled that she sued Berkeley after being passed over a promotion she had been promised. A man was hired over her and three other female finalists, including Bissell. After suing, Gopalan was forced out of Berkeley, prompting her move to Canada when Kamala was just an adolescent, Bissell said.
Bissell, who had been friendly with Harris’s mother since Kamala and Bissell’s children met in a ballet class as little girls, never forgot how Gopalan was treated. The women kept in touch and, years later, Bissell was put in charge of the biology division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. She immediately hired Gopalan, who would work at the lab almost up until she died of cancer in 2009.
“She was very sure of herself, she wanted to do research, and she did good research and I loved her,” Bissell said, though she noted Shyamala could be unyielding when convinced she was right.
Bissell visited Gopalan as she was packing to leave her apartment and go to hospice. Always the dedicated scientist, Gopalan was focused on finding a home for her research mice. Bissell raised thousands of dollars to rescue the mice so Gopalan’s research could be finished after her death.
Karen Clopton, a judge and member of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission as well as a longtime friend of Harris’s, said she met Harris’s mother several times, but only realized just how much Gopalan meant to Harris when she joined Harris’s swearing in as the district attorney in San Francisco. Sitting on stage with Gopalan for that event, the swearing in of the city’s first African-American district attorney, Clopton said she was struck by the intense pride the two women shared over the historic moment.
“I actually really grasped at that point just how important her mother was in her life and in growing up,” Clopton said. “The pride, you know how you can feel it? I can feel it. The pride, both ways, that is shining through.”
Clopton said Harris used Shelton’s Bible at that swearing in too.
“She does a lot of homage and acknowledgement of her ancestors and those fabulous women who really helped her to grow,” Clopton said. “It was a village that raised the two [Harris] girls and that’s very African-American as well.”
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