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Kamala Harris: The inspiring story of many firsts

In a historic speech after her victory in November, Harris remembered her late mother Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist from India, saying she had prepared her for this big day in her political career.

First-time Senator Kamala Harris, popularly called the “female Obama”, created history by becoming the first woman, first Black and first Indian-American vice president of the United States.

In a historic speech after her victory in November, Harris remembered her late mother Shyamala Gopalan, a cancer researcher and civil rights activist from India, saying she had prepared her for this big day in her political career.

She also said that while she may be the first woman to occupy the vice president’s office, she would not be the last.

Harris, 56, is known for many firsts. She has been a county district attorney; the district attorney for San Francisco – the first woman, first African-American and first Indian-origin to be elected to the position.

She has several firsts in her role as vice president also: the first woman, the first African-American woman, the first Indian-American and the first Asian-American.

When Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden picked Harris in August last year as his running mate recognising the crucial role Black voters could play in his determined bid to defeat Donald Trump, the then California Senator was the third woman to be selected as the vice president on a major party ticket. Then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 and New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 were the other two.

Before becoming Biden’s running mate, Harris had her own presidential dreams, which she abandoned due to lack of the financial resources to continue her campaign.

She’s one of the only three Asian Americans in the Senate and she’s the first Indian-American ever to serve in the chamber.

During the Obama era, she was popularly called the “female Obama”. A decade ago, journalist Gwen Ifill called Harris “the female Barack Obama” on the “Late Show With David Letterman”.

Later, a small businessman from Willoughby Tony Pinto called her “a young, female version of the president”.

She is considered to be close to Barack Obama, the first black American President, who endorsed her in her various elections including that of the US Senate in 2016.

Harris was born to two immigrant parents: a Black father and an Indian mother. Her father, Donald Harris, was from Jamaica, and her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who immigrated to the US from Chennai in 1958. She, however, defines herself simply as ‘American’.

After her parents divorced, Harris was raised primarily by her Hindu single mother. She says that her mother adopted black culture and immersed her two daughters – Kamala and her younger sister Maya – in it. Harris grew up embracing her Indian culture, but living a proudly African American life. She often joined her mother on visits to India.

Her maternal uncle Gopalan Balachandran, who is based in Delhi, described Harris as a “fighter” and expressed the hope her top-level position would give Indians in the US “greater access” in interacting with the US administration.

“My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters,” she wrote in her autobiography The Truths We Hold. “She 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.”

Harris was born in Oakland and grew up in Berkeley. She spent her high school years living in French-speaking Canada – her mother was teaching at McGill University in Montreal.

Her mother told her growing up, “Don’t sit around and complain about things, do something,” which is what drives Kamala every single day, according to the Biden-Harris joint campaign website.

“The first Black and Indian-American woman to represent California in the United States Senate, Kamala Harris grew up believing in the promise of America and fighting to make sure that promise is fulfilled for all Americans,” it says.

She attended college in the US, spending four years at Howard University, which she has described as among the most formative experiences of her life.

After Howard, she went on to earn her law degree at the University of California, Hastings, and began her career in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

She became the top prosecutor for San Francisco in 2003, before being elected the first woman and the first black person to serve as California’s attorney general in 2010, the top lawyer in America’s most populous state.

In her nearly two terms in office as attorney general, Harris gained a reputation as one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party. She was elected as California’s junior US senator in 2017.

“Kamala has spent her life fighting injustice. It’s a passion that was first inspired by her mother, Shyamala, an Indian-American immigrant, activist, and breast cancer researcher,” says her website.

Harris has been married to Douglas Emhoff, a lawyer, for the past six years. She is the stepmother of two children, Ella and Cole who are her “endless source of love and pure joy.”

Biden had said that he would be honoured to be serving with Harris, who will “make history as the first woman, first Black woman, first woman of South Asian descent, and first daughter of immigrants ever elected to national office in this country.”

Harris’ role as vice president will be more than just symbolic. Unlike her predecessors, she is likely to wield considerable power during Biden’s presidency.

And if Biden, who will be 82 at the end of his first term in 2024, decides not to seek a second term, Harris would be an obvious choice for the Democratic Party’s nomination.

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