Harris, in Africa, puts a rare emotional emphasis on her identity
April 1, 2023 Updated Sat., April 1, 2023 at 8:38 p.m.
LUSAKA, Zambia – The roundtable with female entrepreneurs was one of the lower-key engagements on Vice President Harris’ schedule – no slave fort backdrops, no arches marking a nation’s independence, no thronging crowds. But for a moment, Harris waxed about something everyone flanking her understood: the difficulties of being a successful woman in a male-dominated world.
“To shatter a glass ceiling is not without effort and sometimes some pain, right?” Harris said to the eight women at the table, as they looked at each other and smiled. “Amen to this. But, oh, isn’t it worth it?”
For the last week, Harris’ official mission in Africa has been to convey the keen U.S. interest in the continent. She has announced billions in aid dollars, convened high-powered meetings and waved off worries that America’s interest in Africa is just part of its larger chess match with China.
But as Harris clocked more than 4,000 miles between Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia, she has leaned into aspects of her identity and biography more than at any other point in her vice presidency. Her tone was particularly notable for a politician whose historic appointment embodies the country’s diversity but who has at times resisted being confined by the adjectives that describe her.
Instead, this week, her identity was constantly on display, if not openly invoked – sometimes in searing and deeply personal ways.
On Tuesday, at a former way station in Ghana for enslaved people, she was a child of the diaspora, fighting tears after laying a bouquet at a women’s dungeon and hearing a mournful song that was once sung by captives. Two days later, in Tanzania, she spoke about women’s empowerment while onstage with the nation’s female president, two “firsts” a few feet from each other.
And on Friday, she was P.V. Gopalan’s granddaughter, walking through a building where her forbearer’s home once stood, describing how his example showed her a path into public service.
“My grandfather was one of my favorite people,” she said after the visit. “He cared deeply about freedom and independence, and I was the eldest grandchild, and so I got the benefit and the blessing of a lot of time.
“He believed in the nobility of public service. He believed in fighting corruption. These are things he would talk about a lot, and I don’t think until I was older I realized how subconsciously that influenced the way I think.”
At a state banquet in her honor and a speech at the Black Star Gate in Ghana, she drew applause after noting that a member of the African diaspora had risen to become America’s vice president. She used her own role to talk about ties between Africa and the United States.
“We have an intertwined history, some of which is painful and some of which is prideful, and all of which we must acknowledge, teach and never forget,” Harris said on Tuesday. “Because of this history, this continent, of course, has a special significance for me personally as the first Black vice president of the United States of America.”
At the banquet, President Nana Akufo-Addo bestowed upon Harris an honorary Ghanaian name, Abena, which means “born on a Tuesday.” Moments later, he drew applause when he announced her as the American vice president, adding that she was “the first female and the first person of African and Asian descent to occupy that office.”
Harris, in a sense, became a historical figure the moment she took the oath of office. Her mother hails from India, and her father came from Jamaica. In many ways, she seemed ideally positioned to talk about the intersection of race, power and politics.
But as a potential future candidate for president, Harris has sometimes found herself moving cautiously as she faces the white-hot scrutiny of high office. Race and gender can be a way for politicians to connect with an increasingly pluralistic America, but they can also be perilous topics in a country that often seems as divided as it is diverse.
Before Barack Obama was the first Black president, he was the author of “Dreams of My Father,” an autobiography that explored his life as the child of a Kenyan father and white American mother. While many found his story inspiring, he also faced attacks over his connection with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a fiery Black pastor, not to mention a protracted and false claim that he was not born in the United States.
When Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential nominee of a major party, she declared, “We just put the biggest crack in that glass ceiling.” But she was assailed by her then-rival Donald Trump, who at times said she got where she was simply because she was a woman and then defeated her for the presidency.
In Harris’ years in the political spotlight, she and those around her have found themselves tiptoeing – and at times stumbling – around that cultural minefield.
When she announced her first bid for president, she was viewed as a rising star with a multiracial background who could reassemble the coalition that Obama built.
But she was out of the Democratic primary before the first vote was cast, unable to convey a unifying message or attract a core group of supporters.
Before dropping out, Harris assailed Joe Biden in the first presidential debate, saying his opposition to busing students in the 1970s was hurtful to her and people like her. But some critics, including many Black voters in the Democratic primary, saw the move as overly calculated, especially when her campaign instantly produced ready-made T-shirts reading, “That little girl was me,” the line she’d used in the debate.
While Harris has spoken up on issues that disproportionately affect Black people, like police reform and voting rights, many activists say she has not done enough to promote specific policies that would help them.
Similarly, Harris has been a longtime supporter of abortion rights, but she had initial reservations about becoming the face of the administration’s push on the issue after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.
People familiar with the discussion, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail a sensitive dynamic, said Harris was worried she could be pigeonholed on the issue because of her gender. Ultimately, she decided to take on the issue and has traveled the country in support of abortion access.
Cape Coast Castle, where Harris stopped on Tuesday, is one of dozens of forts that imprisoned enslaved people before they were sent to the Americas and the Caribbean, where Harris’ father hails from. She was visibly emotional during the tour, and she declared afterward that all children should be taught what happened there.
“There are dungeons here where human beings were kept,” she said. “Men, women and children. They were kidnapped from their homes. They were transported hundreds of miles from their home, not really sure where they were headed. And they came to this place of horror – some to die, many to starve and be tortured, women to be raped – before they were then forcibly taken on a journey thousands of miles from their home.”
As she traveled through Zambia, she stressed a tie that was not just historical, but also familial.
Gopalan, her maternal grandfather, was a civil servant in India and an expert in refugee resettlement. In 1966, the Indian government sent him to Zambia to help the African nation deal with a surge of refugees after the country that would become Zimbabwe declared its independence from the United Kingdom. As a child, Harris would come to visit him.
Between official events on Friday, Harris stopped at 16 Independence Ave. in Lusaka, the site of the home where her grandfather lived. She was handed a small blue document, a public record from the Zambia Ministry of Lands that contained her grandfather’s surname. She also stopped by a hospital where her aunt worked.
Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema said at a news conference that his nation was “ecstatic” about Harris’ visit, which he called “a homecoming.”
“My duty is really simple this afternoon,” Hichilema said. “To warmly welcome (the) vice president to (the) statehouse, to Zambia. And to many Zambians, it’s receiving somewhat a daughter of our own country.”
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