The Kamala Harris Jamaican connection
US vice-president-elect's father is a proud islander who made sure his daughters know their heritageSunday, January 17, 2021
BY ROBERT SAMUELS
(The Washington Post)
ON a summer evening in 1978, Donald Harris took his two young daughters to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, to their first concert.
Kamala, the girl who would become vice-president, was the elder at 13. And as she watched Bob Marley and the Wailers sing and sway at the outdoor arena on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley, she found herself mesmerised.
“We sat up top in the back of the theatre and, as I watched the performance, I was in complete awe,” Harris said in an email to The Washington Post. “To this day, I know the lyrics to nearly every Bob Marley song.”
The experience was meant to be more than musical. Her father, a prominent Jamaican economics professor teaching at Stanford, was trying to imbue his two American-born girls with a sense of pride in their roots. Like the Harrises, Marley was from a parish on the north coast of the island called St Ann.
“My father, like so many Jamaicans, has immense pride in our Jamaican heritage and instilled that same pride in my sister and me,” Harris wrote. “We love Jamaica. He taught us the history of where we're from, the struggles and beauty of the Jamaican people, and the richness of the culture.”
Most of the time Kamala Harris and her sister, Maya, spent growing up was with their mother, the consequence of a bitter divorce and tough custody battle. Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher who grew up in India, had taken a job at McGill University a little over a year before the concert.
Three seasons a year, the girls lived in Montreal. Summers included bonding time with their father.
Throughout Kamala Harris's historical political career — a zenith of which will be her swearing-in as the country's first woman, first black and first Asian vice-president — Donald Harris has chosen to be in the background. The two are on good terms, friends and relatives of Donald Harris say. But at 82 he has little desire for the attention or celebrity that comes with his daughter's ascent.
The only major comment he made about her political campaign came after Harris jokingly cited her Jamaican heritage on a radio show in 2019 when asked if she ever smoked marijuana.
“Speaking for myself and my immediate Jamaican family, we wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty,” Donald Harris wrote in a column for Jamaica Global Online. After that comment, Harris has repeatedly told reporters that he wanted to stay out of politics.
For years, he has lived near his daughter's condo in Washington's West End, but Kamala Harris's transition team is not sure he will be part of any inauguration festivities.
Her father did not respond to several requests seeking comment, The Washington Post said.
Harris has noted that her late mother was the most formative parent in her life. Gopalan took her daughters to her hometown of Chennai in southern India and dressed them in Indian jewelry. Tamil Americans have been delighted to hear Kamala Harris use the word “chitti” — a term of endearment for the younger sister of one's mother — in high-profile speeches.
Gopalan was also a student of the civil rights movement and knew society would see her daughters as black Americans, so she also introduced them to Aretha Franklin, sent them to a black church and a preschool with Harriet Tubman posters on the wall, steeping them in the African American experience.
But there was a third culture that influenced Kamala Harris, and that came from her father who wanted to make sure his children understood his homeland of Jamaica. This contribution is perhaps the most singular impression he made on the identity of the senator from California.
Donald Harris deemed those lessons both a patriotic and a paternal duty.
In a 2018 essay published via Jamaica Global Online, Harris described that duty as the continuation of a philosophy bestowed upon him all his life, from his youth in a rural island town to his career teaching at some of the most respected universities in the world. The philosophy was often delivered in the Jamaican patois: “member whe yu cum fram”. Remember where you come from.
Harris's Jamaican family comes from Brown's Town, so named after enslaver Hamilton Brown. It remains a rural area that bustles with markets where merchants sell meat, spices and other goods.
Harris's great-grandmother, Christiana Brown, is thought to be both a descendant of Brown and enslaved Jamaicans, according to Latoya Harris, 39, who is also a great-grandchild of Brown, a stern businesswoman everyone called Miss Chrishy.
Brown had children with Joseph Harris, a landowner of European ancestry who raised cattle and planted fields of pimento berries, also known as allspice. Miss Chrishy owned a small store along the town's main street.
The family has since given up operating the store but the structure remains. The store sold everyday goods and featured a large brick oven that was used to make its famous bulla cakes – flavourful flat pastries made with flour, ginger and molasses. This was a family of merchants, a legacy that continued with Kamala Harris's grandfather and Donald Harris's father, Oscar.
In his 2018 essay Donald Harris wrote that he would go to Miss Chrishy's store after school so she could drive him home. It was Miss Chrishy's love of discussing business and politics — as well as his experience spending summers on his maternal grandparents' sugar cane farm — that shaped a curiosity about labour economics which became his life passion.
The generations-long Harris tradition, according to Latoya Harris, had been “to always try to do the most”. She recalled elders waking her to redo class assignments if they thought she hadn't worked hard enough on them. And her Uncle Donald — their brilliant relative who taught in the United States — was often held up as a prime example.
Donald Harris's love of economics took him to The University of the West Indies and then to Berkeley, where he received his PhD in 1966. Harris was then embroiled in what was known as the Cambridge Controversy — so named because it featured academic sparring between professors publishing from the two Cambridges, Massachusetts and England — about theories of economic growth.
In the late 1970s, American University Professor Robert Blecker was an undergraduate at Yale, eager to learn about these theories at a lecture from a visiting professor. When Don Harris — as he is known in academic circles — walked into the room, Blecker was surprised.
“I had heard his name and I may have seen his articles, but none had discussed his race,” Blecker said. “The name didn't resonate in any identifying way. And in came this black guy. And not just a black guy, but one with a Jamaican accent — and a very erudite Jamaican accent.”
At that point, Blecker said, he did not recall seeing any other black professors or women in the department. “This was all very different,” he said. He was so inspired by Harris that he went on to pursue a graduate degree in economics under his tutelage at Stanford.
In the United States, Harris's brand of economics was seen as a part of the academic counterculture. He questioned the mathematical presumptions of supply and demand that depended on the theoretical “rational man” to understand economic growth.
Instead, he incorporated the philosophies of economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx, questioned the relationship between production and profits, and discussed the importance of income distribution.
His premise, though, wasn't simply based on those who had written books. It came from watching Miss Chrishy discuss the meaning of work at the family store and hearing workers in sugar cane fields discuss wages.
At Stanford he became the first black economics professor to receive tenure. His students joked about the way he frequently arrived for class about 10 minutes late — some attributed it to his easy-going Caribbean demeanour. His high-minded theories, though, were no joke. By the end of one of his lectures the chalkboard would be dusty from his scribbling of matrix equations and linear curves.
The students who were interested in the “alternate approach to economics”, however, tended not to be so fond of math, according to Steve Fazzari, another one of Harris's students who now teaches at Washington University in St Louis. Harris gained a reputation in his department for being a prolific author and engaging speaker who was not always accessible. In his colleague Duncan Foley's autobiography, the economist referred to Don Harris as a brilliant man who had “a tendency to overcommitment”.
There's something about the incoming vice-president that reminds Don Harris's students of their old graduate adviser. Even while they could become annoyed by his hands-off approach, they admired his incisive questioning of graduate students and visitors giving presentations to the department.
“He had a way of getting to the heart of the matter,” said Tracy Mott, a former student who is now a professor at the University of Denver. “And I loved watching Kamala grill people at the Judiciary Committee hearings. I'd hear her and say, 'She's smart, like Don.' ”
Harris also took an interest in the civil rights movement. He and Gopalan were part of a social circle that read, debated and theorised on the best ways to achieve black liberation, according to Aubrey LaBrie, an old family friend.
Harris was one of the more reserved people in the group, friends recall, eager to have long discussions about philosophy and policy but less at home standing on campus soapboxes and addressing large crowds. Never forgetting his life back home, he even wrote pieces in Jamaican newspapers describing the importance of Malcolm X to the United States.
He and Gopalan fell in love protesting, and Kamala Harris often speaks about accompanying them to demonstrations while she was in a stroller. But their marriage did not last. In Kamala Harris's memoir, The Truths We Hold, she wrote that the two “stopped being kind to each other” by the time she was five.
When Don Harris took a visiting professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Gopalan stayed behind with the girls. In 1971, when Kamala was seven, the two divorced. The relationship became so tense, Kamala Harris wrote in her memoir, that she worried her mother would not even show up at her high school graduation if her father was there. (He attended, and so did she.)
“It was hard on both of them,” Kamala Harris wrote in the book. “I think, for my mother, the divorce represented a kind of failure she had never considered.”
Brown's Town summers
After the marital split Kamala Harris's weekends and summers were with her father. He watched the pet hamster and took the girls to Disneyland, but the most memorable trips were the ones back to Jamaica.
On the island, they visited the markets of Brown's Town where her great-grandmother had the family store and her great-grandfather is buried in the Anglican Church graveyard. The sisters ran through the old family properties and the sugar cane fields.
They'd attend get-togethers in the hills, where an uncle would be making a big pot of curry goat outside and relatives prepared signature Jamaican dishes: rice and peas, jerk chicken, beef patties.
“When someone comes back home, we roll out the red carpet for them,” said Latoya Harris, her second cousin, who works in educational philanthropy. “That's just who we are.”
Kamala and Maya would bite into sugar cane on front porches, buy fruit at the markets, and cruise around with their Uncle Chris, a race car driver.
“I remember him calling speed bumps 'sleeping policemen', '' Harris told The Post. “That's where I got my love of driving a little too fast.”
When Kamala Harris got a little older her father introduced her to Marley and Jimmy Cliff. She picked up some patois, the distinct Jamaican dialect that blends English with African languages.
But he also tried to shape an understanding of the culture that went beyond food and music. He taught his daughters about the history of the Jamaican Maroons, kidnapped Africans who rebelled against their captors and escaped to the mountains. The elder Harris taught her about the vast gulf between the wealthy and the poor in Jamaica, and the challenges to economic growth — blending his experience with his expertise.
Those challenges still consume Donald Harris.
After retiring from Stanford in 1998, he moved to DC to consult with agencies such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) on economic issues in the Caribbean. Harris's prescriptions have included limiting Government intervention in exchange rates, the creation of credit bureaus and tax reform, according to Gerry Johnson, a former general manager of the Country Department Caribbean at the IADB.
These changes have “basically created the possibility of Jamaica to start increasing its productivity and stop being a poor country, and have a brighter future”, Johnson said. “The country has received accolades for its growth – and that's a tribute to the type of policies that Don Harris has been promoting.”
It is also a part of his philosophy of remembering where he came from.
His daughter says she tries to do the same. Even as she prepares for the transition to the vice-presidential residence at One Observatory Circle, she wrote that she still has frozen Juici patties in her fridge and a recipe for oxtail that she is longing to perfect.
Her fluency in the culture still tends to surprise some. In 2018, months before she would announce her own presidential campaign, a group of prominent Jamaicans and Jamaican Americans in South Florida gathered to greet her at a private fund-raiser for then-Senator Bill Nelson (Democrat-Florida) in downtown Miami. They had all admired her political career but they still had questions about her comfort with the culture. The word “Jamaica” isn't even cited as a keyword in the index of her memoir.
At the end of the fund-raiser the group gathered to ask questions. Harris told them her family came from Brown's Town and that she has relatives in St Ann's Bay.
Winston Barnes, a city commissioner from Miramar, thickened his Jamaican accent to see if she could keep up.
“What you know about St Ann?” he recalled asking her.
To his surprise, Harris switched into a patois inflection.
“How you mean?” she responded. “I know there from growin' up.”
And then she began to tell the stories about her adventures with her father.
“That's what I needed to hear,” Barnes reflected. “She is one of us.”
Reprinted with the kind permission of The Washington Post
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