Identity and Beyond:  Families, Nations, and Interculturality

Part II of The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics

Those who do not recognize the manner in which identity politics dominates nearly all conversation in America understand little if anything of America.  What the nomination of Kamala Devi Harris by the Democratic party to the Vice-Presidency of the US signifies is not so much the fact that women have finally arrived on the political scene, or are on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling that has held them back, an argument that was advanced when Hillary Clinton became the party’s nominee for the President, but rather the sheer impossibility of escaping the identity question in American public life.  Let us consider her, in the first instance, as an African American as Harris has herself weighed in on these matters often, describing herself as a Black on most occasions and adverting to her pride in being African American. Her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is explicit on one particular detail that merits some consideration.  Her parents separated when she was around five years old, and they divorced a few years later; but her mother, who had come from India as a graduate student, was not therefore bereft of a family. Kamala’s parents had a shared political life for some years:  they participated in political demonstrations against racism, discrimination, and injustice, discussed decolonization in Africa, and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’.  These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, “my mother’s people.  In a country where she had no family, they 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.”  In consequence, Shyamala Gopalan raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, as black children:  “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as two black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”

KamalaHarrisBabyWithParents

A baby Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and her paternal grandfather, Oscar Joseph, during a visit to Jamaica. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

In characterizing her mother’s desire to raise her and Maya so that they would become “confident, proud black women”, Kamala Harris would appear to have resolved decisively the question of whether she leans more heavily on the side of being viewed as African American or Indian American.  Yet, in her speech at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) where she accepted her nomination, she spoke at length about her mother; the father was barely present, not even as a footnote—perhaps another testament to the absent black fathers who are said to populate the American landscape.  One wishes that she had shown greater sensitivity and self-reflexivity in choosing to eviscerate her father, Donald Harris, from her acceptance speech at the DNC, all the more so because she has elsewhere spoken of vacations spent with her father and her paternal grandparents in Jamaica, and her father is generally mentioned with warmth if not copiously. A substantial portion of the white population in the US has long been inclined to believe that black men are incapable of exercising ‘responsibility’ and that as fathers they are particularly derelict in the performance of their duties. There is nothing in the record to suggest that Donald Harris was not a good father—nor has Kamala Harris (to her credit) ever insinuated anything along these lines. Indeed, Donald Harris, a professor emeritus of economics at Stanford University, even argued in an essay, “Reflections of a Jamaican Father” (2018), that the custody of his two daughters was given to their mother “based on the false assumption by the State of California that fathers cannot handle parenting (especially in the case of this father, ‘a neegroe from da eyelans,’ was the Yankee stereotype, who might just end up eating his children for breakfast!) Nevertheless I persisted, never giving up on my love for my children.”  Professor Harris’ short memoir is remarkable for another reason:  just as Kamala lionizes her mother, so he remembers with not warmth alone but almost as an act of homage to the strength of women the unrivaled place his paternal grandmother, “Miss Chrishy”, and his maternal grandmother, “Miss Iris, came to occupy in his life.  Both were fiercely independent women—a trait apparently running in the women on all sides of Kamala Harris’s family:  from “Miss Chrishy” the future economist learned the business of running a dry goods store and her own home-grown version of the Labor Theory of Value, and from “Miss Iris” Donald acquired intimate knowledge of managing a sugar cane farm, a subject that he found sufficiently intriguing that in time it would inspire him to study the sugar industry.

KamalaHarrisWithIrisFinegan

A baby Kamala Harris with her great-grandmother Iris Finegan, or “Miss Iris” as Donald J. Harris describes her, during a visit to Jamaica. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

One might say that it is but natural that Kamala Harris should have offered a glowing account of her mother who, after she separated from her husband, raised their two daughters.  We might, however, also try to interrogate her apparent self-identification as an African American from an altogether different angle:  where does Africa belong in her political and moral imagination and her discursive world? The question assumes all the more importance at this present juncture, given the force, velocity, and urgency with which “Black Lives Matter” has become enshrined as the preeminent political movement of contemporary America with reverberations elsewhere in the world.  Oddly, as some reflection on “Black Lives Matter” suggests, the movement has little to say about lives in Africa; and the continent scarcely figures in her autobiography.  Indeed, judging from what transpired from the eight years of Obama’s presidency, there is little if any reason to think that his term in office had any long-lasting implications for Africa.  Obama paid four visits to sub-Saharan Africa, twice as many as Clinton and George W. Bush, but Bush on his two trips visited ten countries while Obama visited only six countries.  Obama was committed to weaning Africa from its dependence on aid, and, as a person of pronounced neo-liberal views, was hopeful that he could get Africans more interested in engaging with the world with commitments to business models.  If one were asked to describe what the eight years of the presidency of an African American meant for Africa, one would be hard-pressed to say anything in the affirmative, beyond the usual cant about ‘pride in origins’, the feeling that one matters in the world, and other similar anodyne expressions that constitute the language of our times.  There is similarly nothing in the record of either Obama or Harris to suggest that they have even remotely the kind of intellectual interest in Africa that shaped the lives of leading black American intellectuals and activists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Bayard Rustin.

KamalaHarrisAtSorority

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), center, sings the Alpha Kappa Alpha hymn at the sorority’s annual “Pink Ice Gala” on Jan. 25 in Columbia, S.C. Copyright: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg News.

What of Kamala Harris’s Indian American origins?  Some Hindi-language newspapers erupted with joy at the announcement of her nomination, as though she had been nominated to fight an election in India; others commented, in language that can only be viewed as comical, on the Indian lotus (kamal) that also blooms overseas.  There are the usual speculations about what a Biden presidency, one in which the younger, energetic, and ‘dynamic’—one of the operative words of our times—Kamala Harris is expected to play a far more aggressive role than what is ordinarily reserved for Vice Presidents, may portend for India-US relations.  If some would like to think that Harris’ Indian roots will incline her to push her boss to grant India more favorable terms of trade, encourage closer India-US relations in an effort to thwart China’s advance, and overlook some of the more authoritarian features of the present Indian administration, others have to the contrary argued that Harris is, to use a colloquialism, ‘a tough cookie’ who is likely to question India’s intentions with regards to Kashmir and lodge strong protests whenever it appears that the rights of minorities are being violated.  All of this is, frankly, uninteresting—just chatter and nothing that might pass for ‘thought’.  To be sure, one can concede that, given her partial Indian ancestry and her visits to India—which ceased more than a decade ago—she may be better informed about India than most other American politicians, but that is scarcely saying anything at all.  George Bush reportedly did not even have a passport when he was elected President, and, as I pointed out in my parody of his state visit to India in 2006, was likely to confuse Mohandas Gandhi with Manmohan Singh, the then Prime Minister of India.  But Kamala Harris’s pronouncements on India should give no one any confidence that she is endowed with any more knowledge of India than politicians with no ties to that (from the American perspective) distant country.

Among Indian Americans, the principal consideration is what having Harris at the near helm of politics might mean for the future of the community in politics.  Indian Americans long complained of being invisible in the US, and the feeling persists among many of them that Hinduism is slighted in comparison to other religions.  Kamala Harris is no Hindu, but for the present many Indian Americans are prepared to overlook that—more particularly because she has spoken with immense affection of not only her mother, her maternal grandfather, but (alas, somewhat in the vein of Ved Mehta) also the seemingly countless number of uncles, aunts, and cousins on her mother’s side.  Her rise is obviously a matter of pride to most Indian Americans, especially women, but it is wholly characteristic of the intellectual parochialism of the community that almost no one has taken Harris’ ascendancy as an opportunity to revisit the rich, largely unknown, and sometimes troubled history of Indian-Black relations in the US.  Such a narrative would encompass the unusual history of what the scholar Vivek Bald has called ‘Bengali Harlem’, a portrait of Indian peddlers, lascars, and other working-class men who struck up long-term relationships, sometimes leading to marriage, with Black, Puerto Rican, and Creole women in cities stretching from the East Coast across to the Midwest and the American South.  It would also encompass, to take another illustration, the sustained interest in the Indian independence movement over a period of three decades in large segments of the African American press, including newspapers such as The Pittsburgh Courier, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Chicago Defender, Atlanta Daily World, and New York Amsterdam News.  On a less rarified note, the history of Indian-Black relationships in the US must surely have to contend with the general tendency—and they would not be alone in this—among Indian American to disavow the company of Africa Americans, the history of attempts by Indians to pass as whites, and the adoption by an overwhelming number of Indian Americans of all of white America’s highly jaundiced conceptions of Black America.

(to be continued)

See also Part I, “The Trouble with Kamala:  Identity and the Death of Politics”

2 thoughts on “Identity and Beyond:  Families, Nations, and Interculturality

  1. Hi Professor Lal! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts in this blog as during the time of the election last year I was also very interested in understanding Kamal Harris through her identity and heritage. Her story is indeed unique. I like how you took a different approach when regarding her identity as an African American: where does she stand on Africa and how much does the continent serve her political compasses. As you said, we rarely see it mentioned in her autobiography. I once read a survey in one of my high school history classes about African Americans and if they they were closely connected to their ancestral roots in Africa, and for many of them in the survey, the answer was no. I can understand the disconnection from their African roots due to the inhumane way their ancestors were ripped from their homeland to be forced into slavery. It seems with each new generation of POC children born in the United States, each one feels a larger and larger disconnect to their roots and ancestral heritage. I am no stranger to that myself as I often feel a distance between me and my Indian roots. You mentioned how black politicians like Obama and Harris show no intellectual interest in Africa as other black activists during Segregation did. I believe this is a result of the continuing generation disconnect. As much disconnect their seems to be from the continent of Africa, I also believe Kamala has a disconnection with the country of India as well. As an Indian American myself, I can also understand the pride and joy felt by many other Indian American women in the U.S. To see a half Indian woman assuming the title of Vice President of the U.S. lifted many spirits within the Indian American community as it now seemed a path had been paved for us to achieve greatness all the way to the top of the government. However much pride I felt when I watched Kamala swear the oath, there was still this sense of hopelessness in my stomach. For me, Kamala Harris identifies more with her African American heritage than she does with her Indian heritage, which is completely understandable as she was raised to embrace herself as a proud, black woman. She shows great respect for her Indian culture and family; however, a majority of her political career has centered around her identity as an African American woman rather than both. That being said, I find it hard to identify her or claim that she represents me as an Indian American woman. I don’t think she should be all about India or putting her efforts into Indian politics, but to me it sometimes feels as if she is just using her Indian background to garner votes and support from the Asian community. I know many might disagree with this stance but it’s hard for me to put into words the mixed feelings I have regarding her and her Indian heritage.

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  2. Professor Lal, I enjoyed reading the second and first part of your essay. I must say that Kamala Harris’ nomination intrigued me as a Californian. You raise many great points such as Kamala Harris’ identity and what the future of Indian Americans during her time as Vice President of the United States would be like. Before the presidential inauguration, I remember watching a cooking video of Mindy Kaling and Kamala Harris in which they cooked an Indian dish. The video was centered on their Indian heritage and Harris’ proximity to it. The kinship or social references used by Harris astounded me at that time, as she is generally identified as African American first rather than Indian American, Jamaican American, or even “mixed”. I remember that in one of our lectures you mentioned Barack Obama, his connection to Africa and the argument of whether he could be considered “African American” like others since his father was Kenyan, hence unlike most African Americans Barack has direct close relation to Africa. We could say the same about Kamala Harris if we were to compare her to the majority of African Americans. Yet, at the end of the day white Americans would deem her African American. I esteem the upbringing Harris’ mother created for her and Maya, her sister.

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