Posted on August 14, 2020

Black Like Kamala

Jamelle Bouie, New York Times, August 14, 2020

It was probably inevitable that Kamala Harris becoming Joe Biden’s running mate would result in controversy over her heritage.

Harris, whose mother emigrated from India and whose father emigrated from Jamaica, is a woman of Tamil and African ancestry who identifies as Black. That’s why, after Biden’s announcement, she was described as the first Asian-American and African-American woman on a major-party presidential ticket.

Not everyone thought this was the right description for Harris. Several allies of President Trump, for example, were quick to dispute the idea that Harris was or could be Black. The radio host Mark Levin said Harris’s Jamaican origins placed her outside the category of African-American. “Kamala Harris is not an African-American, she is Indian and Jamaican,” Levin said. “Her ancestry does not go back to American slavery, to the best of my knowledge her ancestry does not go back to slavery at all.”

Taking a somewhat different approach, the conservative provocateur Dinesh D’Souza said Harris could not claim to be a descendant of slaves, and thus an African-American, because one of her ancestors may have been a slaveholder.

These objections are wrong. Jamaica, home to a brutal and violent plantation system, was at the center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a major node in Britain’s Atlantic empire, along with the Bahamas and its colonies on the North American coast.

Many Jamaicans trace their origins directly to slavery and the mass importation of African captives. Based on a genealogical account by her father, there is a strong chance Kamala Harris is one of them. What’s more, many descendants of enslaved people in the Americas have European ancestry on account of the pervasive sexual violence whites perpetuated wherever slavery took root.

Having said all of that, this bid to contest Harris’s identity — which continued on Thursday with President Trump’s clumsy attempt to stoke another “birther” controversy, this time about a woman born in Oakland in 1964 — gives us an opportunity to think more deeply about the contours of racial identity in the United States, and Black American identity in particular.


Here, precision is important. Black people did not create themselves as “a race.” Race is an ideology, not a biological reality. {snip}

Race does not exist in the ether. It must be created and recreated, part of a hierarchical system of domination called racism, itself tied to the production and distribution of resources in our society. The violence and forced peonage of the post-Reconstruction era; the segregation of Jim Crow; the white flight, deindustrialization and the ghettoization of inner cities — all of these things created race.


The rigidity of race hierarchy in the United States is one important reason that African-descended people from other parts of the world have identified with, and identified themselves as, Black Americans once in this country. They, too, were bound to the fate of the descendants of American slaves, thrown into this process of group formation. {snip}

Let’s return to Kamala Harris. Her family, as she explains in her 2019 memoir, grounded itself in the Black community of California’s Bay Area. “From almost the moment she arrived from India,” Harris writes of her mother, “she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the Black community. It was the foundation of her new American life.” Harris, in turn, was raised to understand herself as a Black American. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud Black women.” Harris, for her part, claims her Black identity as much as her Indian heritage: “I was born Black. I will die Black. I’m not going to make excuses for anybody because they don’t understand,” she said in an interview in 2019.

Because of heritage, upbringing and the realities of American racism, Harris calls herself Black and is also understood as Black by people within and outside the Black community.


Perhaps, then, instead of asking “What makes someone Black?” it might be better to ask “Why do so many Americans of African descent claim blackness?” The answer, I think, is similar to what it was when most Black people still toiled in bondage. In the face of racism and racial oppression, Black identity links us to a history and to a culture, to tools to survive and resources to thrive. It provides refuge and spiritual sustenance. And it connects us to a vital tradition of struggle and perseverance, with many different visions for what it might mean to be free.