On August 12, Maya Harris exultantly tweeted the front pages of The New York Times, Washington Post and Daily News, each one emblazoned with banner headlines heralding Joe Biden’s historic choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate in the US elections in November. After that, the new vice-presidential candidate’s sole sibling posted in a different register.
“Don’t you let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are – Dr. Shyamala Gopalan,” wrote Maya Harris, above a photograph from 1970, when she was three years old. Next to her, the future politician smiles with affection at the camera, which probably means the photographer was their father, the Marxist economics professor (and immigrant from Jamaica), Donald Harris.
Adorable kids, but the arresting figure is their mother, with her fiercely watchful mien. She is focused hard on unseen challenges heading in their direction, and you get the distinct impression her little family is caught up in a fragile moment. Even decades later, sitting thousands of kilometres away in monsoon Goa, it gave me a lump in my throat.
Faded ’70s colours
“The photograph of Kamala Harris with her mother and sister is a bit hard to look at,” said Teju Cole, the brilliant Nigerian-American writer, photographer and critic (and Gore Vidal Professor of Creative Writing at Harvard), “because it touches on a sore spot of personal history: the mother’s seriousness and concern, the precarity of their circumstances, the uncertainty of dreams.”
I had written to ask Cole what he thought about the photograph, and he responded with great insight, “the faded colors of this seventies moment takes us back to before anyone knew how things could turn out. Things were uncertain not only because that is how life is, but also because the US was already undoing its commitments to a social safety net, and moving towards the feral winner-take-all economy that Reagan would formalise a few years later. Decades later, we are in the world that was made by those ideas. Many families saw their American dream crumble into hardships. An immigrant family arriving in the US now would be even more precarious.”
There’s no doubt it was a cusp time for the Gopalan-Harris family. That same year, the girls joined other children bused in to desegregate the Berkeley public school system. Soon afterwards, in 1972, after what their father describes as “a hard-fought battle in the family courts,” they were awarded into the custody of their mother, who proceeded to embark on a consequential decision.
Shyamala Gopalan was an award-winning Carnatic music singer and research scientist who never lost her Tamilian accent, and remained close to her family back home in Chennai. But she chose to bring up her daughters athwart from almost all their Indian-American contemporaries. Kamala Harris describes that choice in The Truths We Hold, writing that Gopalan “understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. 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.”
At this point, it’s necessary to zoom out from the two little Harrises to take in the sweep of addled, unscientific mumbo-jumbo that comprises “race” in America, which even the US Census acknowledges “do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria.”
While often described as “a Christian country” it has been painfully clear for 200 years the actual American religion is the patent absurdity called “Whiteness”. Equally obvious is the fact that there’s no such thing: just a disparate set of ethnic elements attempting unity amidst the collective deception they’re “not black” (spoiler alert: also bogus).
In his classic The Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad clarifies that “Blackness signifies emptiness, failure: it does not directly refer to “black bodies” (of which there really are none). Rather, it refers to a projection onto certain peoples who are deemed to be ‘black’. This idea of blackness does not necessarily refer to those of African ancestry; it is white supremacy’s idea toward people whom it designates as ‘black’ and who are then assumed to be inferior in many ways.”
That grotesque charade demands complicity from sufficient “whites” – thus Italians, Irish, Arabs, Jews, and any number of other previously excluded peoples have now been granted access. Here, Prashad cites Toni Morrison, who wrote, “The move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Only when the lesson of racial estrangement is learned is assimilation complete.”
This is the poisoned bargain offered to Indians in the US. If the richest and best educated migrant community in the country wants high office, it must perforce take the lane that runs right over “the blacks” (see Bobby Jindal). It hasn’t happened to any significant extent – 77% voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 – but the threat will never dissipate, because that’s how the country is built. Which brings us to another reason the photograph of Shyamala Gopalan and her girls packs such a jolt. It’s a distinct reminder of paths not taken, and the broken trajectory of the first desis in America.
In his fine The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America, Vinay Lal writes, “The merchant seamen employed by the East India Company who made their way to the Eastern seaboard colonies [in the 17th century] appear to have brought slaves from India, who were almost certainly unaware they were being taken to the Americas. These slaves married into the black population, most probably converted to Christianity, and were endowed with a new name.”
That trend continued for centuries, with another notable influx in Salem and other New England ports involved in the wildly lucrative ocean trade with India (at the end of the 18th century, revenues from those routes exceeded that of all European countries put together). Here, numbers of lascars jumped ship to try and seek their fortunes in the New World, inevitably assimilating into “black” America.
Vivek Bald’s outstanding Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America describes another fascinating migration via Ellis Island at the end of the 19th century. These intrepid “Bengali Muslims quietly became part of some of America’s most iconic neighborhoods of color, from Tremé in New Orleans to Detroit’s Black Bottom, from West Baltimore to Harlem. Many started families with Creole, Puerto Rican, and African American women.”
Life on the racial margins
I emailed Bald to ask him what he thought of the photo Maya Harris tweeted, and he wrote back, “It reflects an immigration trajectory in which South Asians have integrated into African American and other communities of color, rather than white communities, and built lives on the racialised margins of the US. Although it is a lesser-known pathway, it has been part of the South Asian American experience from the earliest days of immigration from the subcontinent. And although they have been completely overshadowed by the more recent experiences of assimilation into White America, these ‘other’ South Asian American immigration stories have been a continuous and ongoing part of our history here.”
Bald made another observation: “Kamala Harris’ mother is also part of another, longer and less acknowledged history of South Asian immigration – that of students.”
He noted, “Even at the height of Asian Exclusion, between the 1910s and 1960s, when immigration from South Asia was in effect, banned, US immigration laws always included exceptions for students. This has accounted for another continuous strand of migration; UC Berkely in particular has matriculated Indian students since the early 1900s. Among them have always been students engaged in social justice politics. Shyamala Gopalan and my own mother both came to the U.S. as PhD students in 1958 and became involved in different ways in the politics of that time – whether Civil Rights activism or pan-Third Worldist politics. In that arena, South Asians on US campuses were interacting with Black and Latinx students as well as other students from decolonising countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. It was a rich moment of solidarity, collective envisioning, and possibility.”
But as quickly as hope dawned, it flickered out and became extinguished. Idealism lost, and the military-industrial complex won. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Richard Nixon stormed to power by weaponising race in the cynical “Southern Strategy.” Egregious idiocies about race only became further entrenched. In 1982, Kamala Harris chose to attend Howard University, the storied “historically black” institution where over 85% of the students are African-American. She pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, the US’s oldest African-American sorority. Now she says with great feeling, “I’m black, and I’m proud of being black. I was born black. I will die black.”
Let’s take a final look at that streetcorner snapshot from 1970, with Shyamala Gopalan and her two beautiful little daughters. Black and Indian? Black or Indian? Isn’t it quite apt and ironic that Kamala Harris is giving many desi bigots conniptions: their knee-jerk Brahmanical boosterism cancelled out by reflexive, anti-black racism?
Teju Cole told me, with penetrating acuity, “The photograph is not merely cute, though the period-aspect of it makes it that. It’s also sad: what struggles Ms Gopalan must have endured! But what’s sadder is that I don’t know that her struggles, or the struggles of a vulnerable family like hers, would be lessened under a future President Harris.”
He added, “Leaving the unique horror of the current administration aside for a moment, the knotty question many people are evading is whether a Black and Indian woman in power is more desirable in itself, as a fact, than whether she has a vision of the future that begins to undo the American disaster. What is her liberatory vision for immigration? What is her progressive vision around questions of militarism? What is she going to do about the mass imprisonment that America accepts as normal? What about the appalling wealth disparities? Representation matters, but is it what matters to the exclusion of all else? This was the question posed by the Obama presidency. The question, alas, remains open.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.