Senator Kamala Harris started her life’s work young. She laughs from her gut, the way you would with family, as she remembers being wheeled through an Oakland, California, civil rights march in a stroller with no straps with her parents and her uncle. At some point, she fell from the stroller (few safety regulations existed for children’s equipment back then), and the adults, caught up in the rapture of protest, just kept on marching. By the time they noticed little Kamala was gone and doubled back, she was understandably upset. “My mother tells the story about how I’m fussing,” Harris says, “and she’s like, ‘Baby, what do you want? What do you need?’ And I just looked at her and I said, ‘Fweedom.’”
This past August, that same precocious child, now a member of the U.S. Senate, stood on a stage in a nearly empty auditorium flanked by American flags and accepted the Democratic nomination for vice president, making history as the first Black and Indian American woman to do so. A week later, flanked by those same flags, she delivered a speech designed to deflect attention from President Donald Trump’s own speech later that night at the Republican National Convention. “Justice,” she said forcefully, boring into the eyes of viewers as she defended the right of peaceful protesters to take to the streets after the recent shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Let’s talk about that. Because the reality is that the life of a Black person in America has never been treated as fully human. And we have yet to fulfill that promise of equal justice under law.”
Rewatching that speech as I prepared for this interview, I wondered if her words would be enough to inspire hope in those who need it most. Depending on whom you ask, hope is either the territory of the naïve or the antidote to our shared pain, but for the last four years, hope has become increasingly elusive for the most vulnerable people in this country. So, as the senator and I log into our Zoom call, I have a lot of questions—and a few trust issues. I don’t sugarcoat my words: I start by asking what many of us would like to know. How can people who have only known the underside of this country’s boot trust her, another politician, to do the right thing? How will the people with the least visibility know that she sees them?
Harris leans toward the screen and tells me about her favorite way to greet people, learned from various cultures in Africa. “When you [are introduced] for the first time, the greeting is not ‘Pleased to meet you.’ The greeting is ‘I see you.’ I see you as a complete human being. At this moment in time, it is so critically important in our country for all people to be seen in their full selves, in a way that gives them the dignity they deserve.”
Dignity is a word she brings up often. She says she has been defending a person’s right to dignity from day one of her time in Washington. “I came to DC for orientation [in November 2016]. And then there was the inauguration, and the next day there was the Women’s March, where I spoke. And then I got on these committees. And then all these confirmation hearings for people like General [John F.] Kelly. Then right after that came the Muslim ban,” she says.
The travel restrictions implemented by the Trump Administration left families and visitors confused, trapped in airports, and unsure of the status of marriages and adoptions. It was chaotic, and as we all watched it play out on various screens, Senator Harris was sitting in a DC apartment filled with unpacked moving boxes, fielding calls from civil rights lawyers she’d worked with over the years. They told her of clients detained by ICE officials and how they were unable to get information in or out. She pantomimes the flurry of calls: “‘Kamala, they’re not letting us talk to our clients.’” This would not do. “I’m used to being in the executive branch and getting things done,” Harris says of her time as attorney general of California. “And not having to ask permission. In fact, that’s why I’ve run for most offices I have run for, because I’m not so good sometimes at asking for permission.”
She was new to the Senate, but being new hadn’t ever stopped her from getting things done before. Somehow she found the home telephone number of General Kelly, who at the time was secretary of Homeland Security, and called him up. “First thing he says to me: ‘How’d you get my number? Why are you calling me at home?’” The look she gives me—raised eyebrows and a slightly curled lip—indicate that his greeting, also, would not do. She says she told him she was calling “Because I’m a United States senator who represents one out of 11 Americans, and you right now have a situation that you need to explain to me about why your people aren’t letting them see their lawyers.”
With political corruption and police brutality top of mind today, it can be hard to believe there’s a powerful defender ready to battle for all of this country’s people at once. None of us can tell the future, so we look for clues, and try to pose the right questions. I ask what justice means to a prosecutor who wants to defend our civil rights. The senator says, smiling, “It’s about freedom, it’s about equality, it’s about dignity. When you achieve equality, and freedom, and fairness, it’s not because I grant it to you. It’s because you fought for it because it is your right. This is not about benevolence or charity; it is about every human being’s God-given right. What do we collectively do to fight for that? That’s what justice represents to me—it’s about empowerment of the people.”
She brings up the idea of “the people” many times. It isn’t surprising language coming from the child of two civil rights activists who raised her to believe that unity can—and will—be achieved in her lifetime. It was not a hope, or wish, in her home—it was a bullet point on their collective to-do list. “[Unity] is not what some people might think, which is, ‘Hey everybody, come in the room, we’re all in the room together.’ No. Because what if one person in that room is telling another, ‘Oh, tone that down a little bit. This is not a time to talk about that. Be a little bit quieter about that for the sake of unity.’ That’s not unity. Unity is when everyone is respected and has an equal voice. We have to be very clear-eyed about what we mean, and that what we mean is not about a Hallmark card.”
Sometimes, it does sound a little like Harris was raised inside a Hallmark card, though it would definitely be one of the cards found in their Mahogany collection. As a child, she frequently visited a place called The Rainbow Sign, a kind of community center in Berkeley, California, for Black families that was frequented by luminaries like Nina Simone, Ruby Dee, and Maya Angelou. Her godmother, Mary Lewis, was the cofounder of the Black studies department at San Francisco State University. I ask how it shaped her to grow up in an environment with such strong personalities and values. “There was no question that you had to dedicate yourself to fighting for justice on some level or another,” she says. “That the measure of you is so much bigger than you; it’s the impact you have, it’s what you do in service to others. And that’s how I was raised. I was raised that it is not about charity and benevolence, it’s about your duty. No one’s going to congratulate you for it—it’s what you’re supposed to do.”
In her home, Harris was expected to have an argument ready on behalf of her beliefs, and she still holds herself to that standard. “If you sit at the dining table and you want to say something, you’d better be prepared to defend it, no matter how old or young you are,” she says. She’s been criticized for the size of her ambition, but maybe more people would set lofty targets for themselves if they were also taught to know what they believe and how to fight for it from when they first learned to speak.
What will the coming months leading up to election night look like for the senator? Busier than I truly care to imagine. As she campaigns alongside Joe Biden, she will continue to support “the brilliance of the Black Lives Matter movement,” and she is engaging in multiple conversations about how to end police brutality. At this point, she’s all for police conduct and criminal justice reforms, some of which she already has experience implementing as a San Francisco district attorney and then as California’s attorney general. Her ideas about the best ways to demand and achieve justice have gotten more progressive over time, but she still faces criticism about her past as a prosecutor. She is not ashamed of having evolved her perspective and hopes the current moment is the beginning of something, not the end. “What I hope and pray is that we can get to a point where, through what are undoubtedly difficult conversations, we confront the real history of America,” Harris says. “Doing it in a way that is motivated by love, but also is fully honest.”
She believes if more white people understood how racism also hurts them, they would fight harder against racist systems and actions. And she has questions for white people who can’t seem to fathom how discrimination also disrupts their lives, especially those who struggle socioeconomically. “What did that whole characterization of poor Black women and calling them welfare queens do to public programs that were about feeding hungry children—all hungry children—regardless of their race?” she asks. I push back on this. There was a time when I would have agreed with her, but now? I’m skeptical. I’ve seen people at anti-mask protests, fighting for their right to die via COVID-19. I don’t know if those people care about suffering from the by-products of racism. I ask if she really believes that white people understanding how racism hurts them might change some of their minds. She looks sad for a moment, and says, “I do.” Then adds, “But it’s not the only way, right?”
I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels like hope is in high demand and low supply these days, but we’re all still searching. Every day there’s a fresh news story hammering home the notion that nobody is actually in charge, that the most marginalized among us are on their own. Even the superheroes from the movies are dying. But what if “the people” don’t need saviors? What if children don’t need heroes? What if all that’s needed are more fighters for the truth—more people who work to maintain actual human rights, and who are ready to defend our dignity at the highest level of government we have? For many, Senator Harris in the role of vice president of the United States is the right step forward, but we will have many more steps to take. She may be the right way to go, but there is always more than one way to save the world. That’s what gives the senator hope.
“Optimism is the fuel driving every fight I’ve been in,” Harris says. She wants us to honor the past and keep our own clear vision for the future. I want to know how she got here—how she became a person dedicated to inhabiting inhospitable places and turning them into her home. “The motivation comes from believing in what can be unburdened by what has been,” she says. “John Lewis, the dearly departed, like many others shed blood on that bridge. Because he really believed in what could be. It will often feel like [we are only] against something, but the motivation that carries us through, with any longevity, is knowing what we’re fighting for.”
What will that mean for us? She relays a story about the night she became the second Black woman in history elected to the U.S. Senate. “In every one of my elections, part of our routine is we do a small friends-and-family dinner before we go to the campaign night celebration.” She explains that it was looking like the election was going to be called for Donald Trump. “My godson, Alexander, who was seven years old at the time, came up to me, crying, and said, ‘Auntie Kamala, they’re not going to let that man win, are they?’ And you know the babies in your life.…” She closes her eyes and swallows. “I held him. I mean, it still brings me pain to remember how he felt, and what it made me feel, which is that I needed to protect this child. I had one way, in my mind, I thought the evening would go. And then there was the way it turned out. And so by the time I took the stage, I had ripped up my notes, and all I had was Alexander in my heart. And I took the podium and I said, ‘I intend to fight. I intend to fight.’” If there’s anything we can know about Senator Kamala Harris, it’s that. When it comes to freedom, she will fight.
Harris was photographed in Washington, D.C. on September 9. Fashion director, Alex White. Produced by Tucker Birbilis at VLM Productions.
This story appears in the November 2020 issue.
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