Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father — both immigrants — broke a nearly two-century barrier in American politics long dominated by white men on Wednesday when she was inaugurated as the nation’s first female vice president, as well as the first Black American and first person of South Asian descent.
Her swearing-in was laced with the historic nature of the day.
The oath of office was administered by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina member of the high court. Harris swore on two bibles, one belonging to Regina Shelton, a close family friend, and the other once owned by Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice. Harris often says that Marshall inspired her to become a lawyer.
Harris’ political career has included many barrier-breaking moments, such as serving as California’s first Black female attorney general and being the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.
Her ascension to the vice presidency, however, comes at a time of deep consequence for the nation as it grapples with the role of policing Black and brown neighborhoods, institutional racism, exposing sexism and harassment against women in various industries, and confronting a pandemic that has disproportionately hit minority communities.
The university, whose campus in Washington served as a backdrop to her swearing-in, was the springboard from youth to adulthood for the future lawmaker. While there, she honed her sharp debating skills and her understanding of her multiracial heritage. She also became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority — making her also the first vice president from a historically Black Greek-letter organization.
Harris has spoken about how her mother, a civil rights activist who came to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley, was a role model for her and her sister despite the challenges an Indian immigrant faced as a single mother, forging a life for herself and her family in the United States.
Shyamala Gopalan met Donald Harris, also a graduate student at Berkeley and now a retired economics professor, at civil rights protests. They divorced when Kamala was a child. Her mother was cognizant that most people would see her children as Black and was “determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud Black women,” Harris wrote in her autobiography, “The Truths We Hold.” Gopalan also made efforts to nurture her children’s Indian heritage.