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Kamala Harris became the first Black, South Asian VP with 'firsts' surrounding her

Harris, whose political career has included many barrier-breaking moments, was surrounded by firsts as she took the oath of office Wednesday.
Image: Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President as her husband, Doug Emhoff, looks on at the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021.
Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president as her husband, Doug Emhoff, looks on at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20.Alex Wong / Getty Images

Kamala Harris, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father — both immigrants — broke a nearly two-century barrier in American politics long dominated by white men on Wednesday when she was inaugurated as the nation's first female vice president, as well as the first Black American and first person of South Asian descent.

Her swearing-in was laced with the historic nature of the day.

The oath of office was administered by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina member of the high court. Harris swore on two bibles, one belonging to Regina Shelton, a close family friend, and the other once owned by Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court justice. Harris often says that Marshall inspired her to become a lawyer.

Harris also wore an outfit designed by Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson, both of whom are Black and from the South, a region pivotal to the Biden-Harris ticket's win. (Rogers is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Hudson is from South Carolina.)

Her fashion choice tracks with the value that Harris said her mother instilled in her: “You may be the first to do many things. Make sure you’re not the last.”

Harris honored her mother, Shyamala Harris, who died in 2009, in a Twitter video Wednesday morning: "I’m here today because of the women who came before me."

"To the woman most responsible for my presence here today: my mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, who is always in our hearts," Harris is heard saying in the video. "When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn't quite imagine this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible."

Harris’ political career has included many barrier-breaking moments, such as serving as California's first Black female attorney general and being the second Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

Her ascension to the vice presidency, however, comes at a time of deep consequence for the nation as it grapples with the role of policing Black and brown neighborhoods, institutional racism, exposing sexism and harassment against women in various industries, and confronting a pandemic that has disproportionately hit minority communities.

Political observers have noted that Harris' place on the ticket resonated with voters of color, and was also indicative of the power and influence Black women have as a voting bloc in the country and particularly in the Democratic Party.

Harris’ record as a prosecutor, however, especially on issues such as marijuana convictions and truancy crackdown, was seen as both an asset and a liability both during her own unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination and when Biden tapped her to be his running mate. A prosecutor’s polish was helpful as she campaigned and participated in debates, but her record was a source of concern to younger, more progressive voters, particularly young Black voters.

Before she broke historic barriers in the ivory halls of Congress, and on the Democratic presidential ticket, she dug into her heritage at Howard University, one of the most prestigious historically Black colleges in the country.

The university, whose campus in Washington served as a backdrop to her swearing-in, was the springboard from youth to adulthood for the future lawmaker. While there, she honed her sharp debating skills and her understanding of her multiracial heritage. She also became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority — making her also the first vice president from a historically Black Greek-letter organization.

Harris has spoken about how her mother, a civil rights activist who came to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in nutrition and endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley, was a role model for her and her sister despite the challenges an Indian immigrant faced as a single mother, forging a life for herself and her family in the United States.

Shyamala Gopalan met Donald Harris, also a graduate student at Berkeley and now a retired economics professor, at civil rights protests. They divorced when Kamala was a child. Her mother was cognizant that most people would see her children as Black and was “determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud Black women,” Harris wrote in her autobiography, “The Truths We Hold.” Gopalan also made efforts to nurture her children’s Indian heritage.

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