There’s still almost a year until the presidential primaries arrive (March 3 in California), so it may be too soon for many of us to choose one candidate to solely endorse. Even so, there’s one thing that Berkeleyans should do right now to improve the national discussion: promote the core values that Berkeley-bred Kamala Harris embodies and professes, values that she first learned to embrace right here.
Kamala Harris experienced in an eerily precise way the most iconic period in our local history: Berkeley in the Sixties. “The sixties,” of course, doesn’t accurately capture the years involved. In Berkeley, we date the period as beginning with the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and closing with the end of active warfare in Southeast Asia in 1977. Kamala’s time in Berkeley matched perfectly: she lived here from her birth in October 1964 until she left town in February 1977.
So far she has mainly been put in a box by lazy media pundits. She’s “the female African-American candidate,” even though some far-left skeptics have called her “not black enough.” But she resolutely resists being labeled with any single hyphenated identity, and simply says “I am what I am.” With Walt Whitman, she can honestly say “I contain multitudes:” the result of her heritage, her education and her lived experience. The continuing reality of that lies at the center of her political strength today.
Inherited identities: Both her parents were highly-educated immigrants who had embraced the civil rights cause even before they arrived here to take on meaningful jobs. Her mother Shymala was from southern India (Tamil Nadu province near today’s Chennai) and came to Berkeley for an advanced chemistry degree, Her father Donald came from Jamaica as an educator, and eventually became a Stanford economics professor. Kamala inherited an active relationship with both places, and not just as boxes on a family tree; she visited both countries often and gained a rich lived experience that persisted beyond her childhood. (She spent a day with the Jamaican expat community in Miami as recently as last December). So she can genuinely claim to be BOTH an Indian-American AND a Jamaican-American by her living heritage, and thereby still has a way to see our American situation from two other perspectives.
Demonstrator in utero? Kamala’s mother was a research chemist who had been on campus since 1960, not forgetting her civil rights past. She was noted for working through both of her pregnancies to the last possible hour. The Free Speech Movement officially started on Sept. 14, 1964, when the campus administration cracked down on protesters, and it reached a first dramatic peak when thousands occupied Sproul Plaza on Oct. 1 and heard the famous Mario Savio speech. Kamala was born on October 20. This is an unconfirmed speculation, but surely Kamala’s activist mother had to have been present for some of these protest scenes, especially including the big one, with Kamala on board. If so, Kamala’s involvement in civil rights work began in Berkeley even before she was born.
Acquired identities. Though she was born in Oakland, she grew up just across the border in the south Berkeley flatlands, in the part of town that once was subject to overt racial discrimination in housing and employment but by then struggled mostly with subtler forms. That put the family in the middle of two overlapping political and cultural communities. One was the campus-centric and somewhat nationally-oriented left-wing politics of Berkeley that organized around resistance to the Vietnam War and the national government, intensely by 1965. The other was the more economically stressed community of Oakland. Activists in Oakland focused not only on resistance to repressive government policies but also on a fight to establish “revolutionary socialism” through grassroots organizing and community service programs. This led, among other things, to the 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party and the revival of the local Nation of Islam community.
Kamala, growing up in this rich ferment, certainly acquired an “African-American” identity by deliberate family choice. But it was of a different sort than Jamaica or India had provided her: established for over 300 years on American soil and branded by slavery and its descendants, local African-American communities looked less to overseas history and more to their own deep domestic roots and recent experience. For that reason, I think of the young Kamala Harris, rather awkwardly, as becoming an (African American)-American — one nurtured by both Berkeley and Oakland activism in somewhat different ways.
A Berkeley Elementary Education. Grammar school gave the young Kamala another early opportunity to participate in a civil rights issue. She rode the school bus to Thousand Oaks School, in a whiter and more affluent hills neighborhood, as a participant in Berkeley’s pioneering commitment to school desegregation that took shape in 1968.
Berkeley schools in the seventies took up the tumults of the times in multiple ways. Desegregation of the classrooms led to desegregation of the curricula, the replacement of the former tracking system with a strategy emphasizing differentiated learning, more community-oriented and democratic methods, and passionate discussions at well-attended school board meetings. The unavoidable political and street-level activity became a part of the civics curriculum; I remember my daughter, in the early 80s, saying she was learning that in Berkeley we not only study history, we make history. For the six years she was a grammar school student, Kamala experienced an educational environment whose fundamental principles were actively evolving from year to year — another vivid cultural change to absorb.
After Berkeley, briefly. After living in Berkeley for over a decade, a new job opportunity caused Shymala and her two daughters (then separated from her husband) to move in Feb. 1977 to Montreal— landing in a new country and a community divided along culture and language lines. Kamala at age 12 was intentionally placed in a French-language junior high school and lived in that minority world through her high school graduation in 1983, which meant adopting a new American—Canadian identity. This certainly provided another outside perspective on the country she’d left. Thereafter, her matriculation to Howard University for college reinforced her involvement with the empowerment of black women; and her return to California for law school prepared her well for her first employment: back in Oakland in the district attorney’s office working “for the people.” But it was her original Berkeley years that first taught her how to juggle multiple concurrent cultural identities as a source of strength.
A call to Fellow Berkeleyans. For the next few months, let’s leave the progressiveness-ranking and scandal-mining of presidential candidates to others, and instead help bring forward the importance of personal experience with cultural diversity as a requirement for our next president. As we are learning, monoculture presidents are not well-equipped to do the job we need today.
A retired technologist who worked both in development and marketing roles for three decades, mostly in small Berkeley companies, Alan Tobey has been actively involved in Berkeley electoral politics and development controversies since arriving in 1970.