Kamala’s way, determination and the black history month

Kamala Harris

US Vice President Kamala Harris applauds during a virtual roundtable with lawmakers and women leaders from advocacy organisations meeting in Washington, DC, on February 18, 2021. 

Photo credit: AFP

The Black History Month (February 1 to March 1) ends on Monday, and what an opportune moment to review Kamala’s Way: An American Life by veteran journalist Dan Morain, who, according to the book’s blurb, has watched Kamala’s “ascent over 25 years while covering California for the Los Angeles Times”.

The blurb raises — and answers — one big question: “How did the daughter of two immigrants born in segregated California rise to become the nation’s first Black female vice president? She did it Kamala’s way”.

Although my Google search of Dan Morain’s other books ahead of this review showed just one book — Kamala’s Way — there’s no doubt that the author is skilled at his craft, having mastered writing through more than 40 years of journalism. Morain is cited as spending 27 years at the Los Angeles Times and eight at The Sacramento Bee, where he was editorial page editor. No wonder, it took him just 66 days to get Kamala’s Way off the press, on January 12, from the day Ms Kamala Harris won the vice-presidency of the most powerful country on earth.

Of course, advance planning in anticipation of a Democratic win, albeit with a razor-thin margin, is a hallmark of a good journalist; it cannot be ruled out in this case.

Be that as it may, Kamala’s Way is a delightful read, especially at this time when the United States and Canada are celebrating the Black History Month. The month is dedicated to important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.

Rainbow Sign

In a way, therefore, the book is noteworthy, rolling off the press not just a week to Ms Harris’ swearing-in as the first Black woman to occupy such a lofty perch in American history, but also just weeks to the Black History Month. Also noteworthy is Kamala’s Black consciousness and the importance she attaches to the Black History Month. Just a year ago, Morain writes, she posted in the social media: “This #BlackHistoryMonth, I want to lift up my mother and the community at Rainbow Sign who taught us anything was possible, unburdened by what has been”.

Although Kamala’s parents — Shyamala Gopalan Harris (she died in 2009) and Donald Harris (he lives close to her), parted ways when their two daughters were pretty young, the mother, who was the principal custodian of the girls, made a point of keeping the children close to their roots. Writes Morain: “Some of the lessons Shyamala taught her daughters during Thursday-evening gatherings at Rainbow sign, a Black cultural center in Berkeley. There, guests included Shirley Chisholm, the New York congresswoman and first black presidential candidate; jazz singer, musician, and civil rights leader Nina Simone; and poet Maya Angelou.”

Evidently, notwithstanding the fact that she started her public career as a prosecutor, Kamala’s early exposure to congresswoman Chisholm must have left an indelible mark on her. Any wonder then, that Kamala’s quest for the White House was not for the vice-presidency, but for the top prize? Not even the 22-year age difference between her and her main challenger, Joe Biden, could persuade her to put off her presidential quest.

The message one gets on reading Kamala’s Way is not just about a Black woman’s determination to ascend to the position that the first Black man, Barack Obama, earned only 12 years ago; it is as if to state, ‘What a man can do, a woman can do’.

The author provides insights into the woman that formed Kamala, the go-getter. He records an incident when Shyamala quit the University of California Berkeley, in a huff, for a teaching job at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, because a promotion she had been promised went to a man. Therefore, in Kamala’s Way, the themes of Black emancipation and woman’s rights are deftly woven together to produce a book that defies simple stereotypes.

The author walks the reader through Kamala’s earliest days, when she was wheeled on a pram to civil rights demonstrations in Oakland, California, her birthplace. Kamala becomes one of the earliest beneficiaries of integrated schools, previously Whites-only schools. She uses this fact to good effect during her bid for the presidential ticket.

The author captures the presidential nomination debate succinctly: “You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day, and that little girl was me.” The statement became the debate’s signature line and her campaign slogan.

Moneybags

So, why did Kamala quit her presidential bid? Although she had become only the second African-American woman to serve in the US Senate in 2016, the feeling was that the presidential bid was premature. And then she lacked the moneybags that go with running for president. Still, she won the admiration of not just fellow Democrat and challenger Joe Biden, but even of Donald Trump.

Morain writes of her kick-off rally: “The event got rave reviews. Even President Trump, aficionado of big crowds, acknowledged in a New York Times interview that Harris’ Oakland event was “the best opening so far.” The author, evidently a skilled commentator, who puts his public analyst skills to good use summed it thus: “It was Harris’s way; enter the race early, show strength, and, perhaps, thin the field. There was plenty of promise. She got off to a great start. But a statewide race in California was one thing. A national campaign was quite another.” (Is Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, my one-time work colleague, listening, vide Bukusu elders’ endorsement?)

When she eventually threw in the towel, Kamala was a victim of a complexity of factors that included abrasiveness — making it a wonder that Biden, even after getting a sting of her acerbic tongue, picked her for running mate. Money was a big issue and you only have to listen to women who have vied for Parliament in Kenya for their tales of how inadequate finances ruined their political ambitions.

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