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John Nichols: Kamala Harris was a 5-year-old in Madison

John Nichols: Kamala Harris was a 5-year-old in Madison

Biden picks Kamala Harris as running mate, first Black woman (copy)

FILE - In this June 27, 2019, file photo, then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to questions after the Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art in Miami. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

When California Sen. Kamala Harris came to Wisconsin to campaign for Sen. Tammy Baldwin in 2018, she surprised folks with the news that Madison was her hometown.

Or, to be more precise, one of her hometowns.

The senator was born in Oakland, California, in 1964, and she spent her first years there. She was the daughter of a remarkable pair of academics. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan — the child of a women’s rights advocate and a prominent civil servant from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu — arrived at the University of California-Berkeley in 1958 to pursue doctoral studies in nutrition and endocrinology. Her father, Donald Harris, a Jamaican immigrant, came to Berkeley in the early 1960s to pursue a doctorate in economics.

Gopalan and Harris married after meeting as activists who were deeply engaged with the civil rights movement in the Bay Area. Harris jokes about having grown up with a "stroller-eye view of the civil rights movement" and once told The Washington Post, "I grew up in a hot spot of the civil rights movement. But that civil rights movement involved Blacks, it involved Jews, it involved Asians, it involved Chicanos, it involved a multitude of people who were aware that there were laws that were not equally applied to all people."

Harris wrote of her parents in her autobiography, “They were big thinkers, pushing big ideas, organizing their community.” That community was initially in and around Berkeley. But after a stop in Illinois, it became Madison. In 1968, Donald Harris accepted an appointment as an associate professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, where he would teach until 1972. Shyamala Gopalan Harris worked as a breast cancer researcher at the UW. And, as Harris told a small crowd at the June 2018 event for Baldwin, “I lived in Madison. My parents taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for a brief moment in time and I was five years old and lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I was a native.”

It was indeed a brief moment, some part of a year in a preschooler's life. Yet "The Truths We Hold," Kamala Harris’s autobiography, features a photo of her walking with her mother and sister on a wooded trail on Madison’s west side. The future senator recalled a childhood home filled with music where, “I would fall asleep to the sounds of jazz that my dad spun on our record player or my mom singing along to the gospel music she loved.”

“But the harmony between my parents didn’t last,” she wrote. The couple separated and eventually divorced, with Donald Harris remaining in Madison and Shyamala Gopalan Harris returning to Berkeley with the couple’s two daughters Kamala and Maya (who was born in 1967 when the couple were at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign). “They didn’t fight about money,” Kamala Harris recalled. “The only thing they fought about was who got the books.”

Donald Harris would leave Madison to join the economics department at Stanford, where it is noted, “he was a leader in developing the new program in Alternative Approaches to Economic Analysis as a field of graduate study. For many years he also taught the popular undergraduate course Theory of Capitalist Development.”

Shyamala Gopalan Harris moved in the mid-seventies with Kamala and Maya to Montreal, where she did research work at the Jewish General Hospital and taught at McGill University. Kamala graduated in 1981 from Westmount High School, the same school from which songwriter Leonard Cohen had graduated several decades earlier. Eventually, Gopalan Harris returned to the Bay Area to work at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory as a distinguished breast cancer researcher.

Madison was just a brief stop on the journey that would eventually take Kamala Harris into politics and now into the history books as the first woman of color ever chosen for a place on a major party’s presidential ticket. But, like former Georgia House Speaker Stacey Abrams, who was born in Madison and speaks warmly of the city, Harris celebrates her connection. Indeed, she told Tammy Baldwin backers in 2018 that, for her, Wisconsin politics remains “kinda personal for me.”

It will get a bit more personal next week, when the Democratic National Convention nominates her for vice president. Though the convention will be virtual, due to COVID-19 concerns, it is still officially based in Milwaukee.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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