Saturday, February 23, 2019

Dreams From My Father, Dreams From My Mother: Tracing the Multiple Identities of Barack Obama and Kamala Harris

Last month, California Senator Kamala Harris confirmed much speculation and announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020.  Senator Harris has been a rising star for some time now.  A decade ago, the late journalist Gwen Ifill said of Harris, “they call her the female Barack Obama.”  Such comparisons are always oversimplified, as critics have noted.  Nevertheless, one set of experiences that President Obama and Senator Harris have in common is that they have both lived and embraced multiple racial, cultural, and national identities. [1]

Obama was raised mainly in Hawaii, the son of a White mother, Ann Dunham, and a Kenyan father, Barack Obama, Sr.  During his childhood, he also lived in Indonesia, and he later attended Occidental College, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School.  Obama’s father, who died in a 1982 car accident, was rarely present during his childhood: Obama last saw him at the age of 10.  During his adult life, Chicago, Illinois became Obama’s home.  Obama’s autobiographical memoir, Dreams From My Father, recounts his search for identity as he navigated different worlds.  He has described his family as a “mini-United Nations.”

While he is known primarily as the first Black president, Obama has framed his own identity in a variety of ways.  At times, he emphasized this to connect with African Americans and bring light to salient issues in Black communities.  For example, in response to Trayon Martin’s killing, Obama humanized young Black males by noting that “[i]f I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.”  Conversely however, his comments critiquing young Black men play right into the narrative of respectability politics

In other settings, when seeking to relate to White audiences, Obama has also spoken of his White grandmother.  This occurred most notably in his speech, “A More Perfect Union.”  Obama has referred to himself as a “mutt” to highlight his biracial identity.  When he visited Kenya in 2015, Obama noted that he was “the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.” And when he spoke in Northern Ireland in 2013, he jokingly referred to himself as “O’Bama,” bringing to light his Irish roots.  Although it certainly did not stop him from facing racial animus, Obama was adept at framing his own racial identity in various ways, depending on the circumstances.

Harris was born in Oakland, California—for many years the hub of activism for the Black Panther Party and other organizations.  Her mother, the late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was from Tamil Nadu, India.  Her father Donald Harris, immigrated from Jamaica.  Both were civil rights activists in the 1960s.  Kamala Harris lived first in Berkeley, California, and after her parents divorced, she moved with her mother and sister Maya [2] to Montreal, Canada, where she attended high school.  Growing up, Harris attended both a Hindu temple and a Black Baptist church.  She recounts her childhood visits to Tamil Nadu, and her father notes that before their parents’ divorce, Kamala and Maya visited Jamaica frequently and experienced their Jamaican heritage.  Harris’ college-age experiences exemplified her identity as a Black women: she attended Howard University and became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., before attending UC Hastings College of Law. 

When she took office in 2017, Kamala Harris was touted as the first South Asian American Senator, the second Black woman Senator, and the first Jamaican American Senator.  Different outlets highlighted each of these identities, and Harris’ connection to Canada has also garnered interest.  During the upcoming presidential nomination season, observers will carefully scrutinize Kamala Harris’ presentation of her various identities.  She has had to deal with critics who have questioned her “Blackness.” Also, Harris recently drew the ire of her own father when she was asked if she had smoked marijuana in the past and responded jokingly: “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?” [3] 

What I find to be most interesting about Kamala Harris’ racial identity is the influence of her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris [4].  In her memoir, The Truths We Hold, Senator Harris notes on page 10 that: "My mother … instilled us with pride in our South Asian roots … [o]ur classic Indian names harked back to our heritage, and we were raised with a strong awareness of and appreciation for Indian culture [.]"

On the same page, she avows that: "My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters … [s]he 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."

Inheriting these “dreams from her mother,” Kamala Harris seemed to grow up with a level of comfort in her multiple worlds.  By crediting her mother for both her South Asian pride and strong Black identity, Harris’ story, perhaps even more than Obama’s, illustrates the full potential of cross-racial understanding.  Shyamala Gopalan Harris raised her children not only to appreciate her Tamil heritage; according to her daughter, she also came to learn and identify with the struggles of another group closely enough to teach Kamala and her sister to navigate the world successfully as Black women.  This is the type of awareness that we should all strive for.

Over the next year or so, we will see how effectively Harris can translate her multifaceted identity into a politically effective persona.  Critics of identity politics abound in the American political landscape, and Harris will probably face challenges akin to the birtherism that constantly surrounded Obama.  Nevertheless, diverse experiences also breed resilience.  Watching Kamala Harris over the next year may provide many lessons not only on racial identity politics, but also on success and progress in an increasingly diverse America.

[1] Both Obama and Harris remind me of “double-consciousness”—that “sense of always  looking at one’s self through the eyes of others[] … two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals … [.]” Renowned African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois developed this idea, first in an 1897 Atlantic Monthly essay entitled “Strivings of Negro People” and then in his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk.  Today is W.E.B. Du Bois’ 151st birthday.

[2] Barack Obama also has a sister named Maya.

[3] During the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Barack Obama also made a joke that referenced racial stereotypes.  When asked if Bill Clinton was the first Black President, Obama quipped that he would “have to investigate … Bill’s dancing abilities.”  Obama did not seem to face any criticism in response.

[4]  Sunil Adam also examines Kamala Harris’ mother’s influence in a recent India Abroad article entitled “Dreams from her mother.

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