The little-known story of Donald J. Harris, father of Kamala Harris

Nii Ntreh Nov 17, 2020 at 06:00pm

November 17, 2020 at 06:00 pm | Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

November 17, 2020 at 06:00 pm | Opinions & Features

“My dear departed grandmothers (whose extraordinary legacy I described in a recent essay on this website), as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics.”

The paragraph above was the sternest criticism a father reserved for her daughter who had gone on a nationally syndicated radio show in an attempt to endear herself to her people, among whom she suffered an amazing lack of support. The father was Donald Jasper Harris, an emeritus professor of economics and a former government economic adviser in Jamaica.

“Half my family is from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?,” Harris’ daughter Kamala had told host Charlamagne Tha God in February. Charlamagne wanted to know if the White House hopeful Ms. Harris supported the legalization of marijuana.

She had clearly agreed to that interview with The Breakfast Club because she, a former Attorney General in California, was not a favorite of most Black Americans. But Ms. Harris’ handlers would have told her the question was going to be asked and seeing how the criminalization of the drug in many states was in part, a thinly-veiled war on Black bodies, points had to be won with her answer, one way or the other.

So she went for the perpetually high Jamaican trope. Laughingly.

Among African-Americans, Ms. Harris polled well behind old white people Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In California too, where she was born and made, Harris came first on very few people’s lists. This was the fact of her hauntingly brief run; a bid by a promising progressive woman who never quite transcended the potentialities of her identity.

His daughter struggled, yet Father Harris did not withhold his admonition. He piled on publicly, as did his daughter’s critics, slamming what came across as her eager performativity.

With his criticism, we were offered a window into the person of the professor. We may also have been given, at the same time, the tools with which to characterize the sort of relationship that existed between father and his daughter.

Donald J. Harris with baby Kamala Harris

Ms. Harris herself wrote in her book, The Truths We Hold, that her Jamaican-born father and Indian mother, had fallen in love at UC Berkeley where they had both been involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Prof. Harris’ social justice activism is also vouched for by Ghanaian politician Dr. Kwaku Sarfo, who was a former student at Stanford where Harris taught.

“We were in the same (Economics) department and he often attended African Students’ Association events, of which I was President,” Dr. Sarfo told Face2Face Africa. The interest in Africa and the relationship with Africans at Stanford brought Harris’ into a strong friendship with the famed Ghanaian professor of economics, the late Tetteh Kofi.

Post-doctoral research for Harris was a concentration on capital accumulation, income distribution and uneven development, starting from the University of Illinois and then to Stanford, where he was the first Black economics professor to receive tenure in 1972. He was once referred to as a “Marxist scholar” whose challenge of neoclassical economics unsettled some at the revered institution.

Now 82, Harris has been retired from teaching since 1998 but it is intriguing to mention he would have shared the economic ideals of his daughter’s colleague in the U.S. Senate, Bernie Sanders, rather than Kamala’s own brand of progressivism. Nonetheless, the professor approached his social justice activism with the open palms policy intellectual honesty would require.

In a 2018 piece titled Reflections of A Jamaican Father, Prof. Harris revealed that his paternal grandmother’s ancestor was Hamilton Brown, a patriarch who “is on record as plantation and slave owner”. That aspect of a family’s history would have been difficult for many to disclose. The complex moral and political aftermaths of European slavery often drive perceived offenders and offended to seek refuge but here was a man, an incurable academic, divulging a niggling bit of his own identity for the sake of scholarship and society.

Perhaps, this was why he was unforgiving when his daughter played to the gallery. Identity, kinfolk and heritage matter, not for purposes of elections but as the foundations of our values and aspirations.

The inside story as to why Prof. Harris remains a footnote in his daughter’s publicly-told story cannot be pinned down to the differences in political and social philosophies. We can acknowledge that Kamala’s mother was the parent the seven-year-old girl grew up with after her parents’ split in 1971.

Shyamala Gopalan, Kamala’s deceased mother, was also an academic, just like her former husband. Gopalan’s values became Kamala’s and she has been abundantly cited as the most profound reason for her daughter’s success.

A baby Kamala Harris with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, and her paternal grandfather, Oscar Joseph, during a visit to Jamaica. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

“Nevertheless, I persisted, never giving up on my love for my children or reneging on my responsibilities as their father,” wrote Prof. Harris in 2018, describing the end of his marriage as “abrupt” and the subsequent battle for the custody of the kids “hard-fought”. He also rued not being part of the journey as Kamala and sister Maya became respectable lawyers and significant national voices.

But Harris has been supportive of Kamala’s success as a senator and there is reason to believe he will be heard from now that she is on her way to becoming one of the most powerful people on this planet. His qualms with her could be forgiven in light of her new status.

When outsiders try to make sense of the relationship between this daughter and her estranged father, all missing links constitute the responsibility of the lead characters to provide. So far, the absence of a perfect picture has not been hurtful to each other’s public profiles.

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