Socks, step-kids and Sotomayor: An inauguration that breaks barriers is only fitting for Kamala Harris

The new vice president will be sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who – as the first Latina Supreme Court Justice – is another woman of firsts and a woman of colour, writes Clare Hill

Tuesday 19 January 2021 20:06
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<p>Kamala Harris pictured dancing on the campaign trail - this week she’ll be sworn in as vice-president</p>

Kamala Harris pictured dancing on the campaign trail - this week she’ll be sworn in as vice-president

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When Kamala Harris takes the oath of office on Wednesday, she will be sending a message to Americans everywhere: she is not only breaking down barriers for women and people of colour, but kicking them to the kerb with her signature Converse Chucks.

She will make history with a long list of firsts: the first female vice president, first black vice president, first Indian-American vice president and the first vice president to graduate from a historically black university.

But being the first is something she has grown used to.

When she was elected to serve as senator in 2016, she became the first Indian-American senator in the US and the first black senator in the Golden State.

She stepped into this role after becoming the first woman and first black person to serve as attorney general of California in 2011.

And before this, she became the first woman and person of color to serve as San Francisco district attorney in 2004.

Christian F Nunes, president of the National Organisation for Women, told The Independent that being first meant Harris had an opportunity to give other women a seat at the table.

“Over the last four years we’ve seen a lot of policy put into place that really took away women’s rights and autonomy and I think we’re going to see a lot those restored,” she said.

Harris’s responsibility to give others a platform certainly isn’t lost on the vice president-elect.

In her victory speech on November 7, Harris pledged her intentions to not just get through the doors herself, but to hold them open.

"While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,’ she said, echoing the words of her late mother Shymala Gopalan Harris who taught her to take others with her on the journey and that “you can do anything”.

Harris in Milwaukee, wearing her signature Converse sneakers

“I think she’s reminding not just girls but also boys across the racial spectrum that women, black women and women of color can do this,” Neal Lester, foundational professor of English and director of project humanities at Arizona State University and an expert in civil rights, told The Independent.

“We can imagine it now. As an African-American male, I couldn’t imagine a black man as a president before Obama. So in 2008 I was in tears as I could never before imagine it would happen.”

While Harris has already started bringing others on the journey by filling many senior positions in her White House team with women, this quest will be impossible to miss come January 20.

Every choice for her inauguration from the Bibles she takes her oath on, to who is swearing her in and what she wears has been carefully – and unapologetically – chosen to symbolise her own backstory and her focus over the next four years.

She will be sworn in by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who – as the first Latina Supreme Court Justice – is another woman of firsts and a woman of colour.

And she has also chosen two Bibles to be sworn in with.

The first belonged to the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was the court’s first African-American justice and a civil rights icon.

Harris features in her niece’s TikTok about impeachment joke

In her memoir The Truths We Hold, Harris described Marshall as one of her greatest heroes and also credited the judge for her decision to attend the historically black Howard University.

“I wanted to get off on the right foot. And what better place to do that, I thought, than at Thurgood Marshall’s alma mater,” she wrote.

As the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father who both moved to the US and met at a protest, Harris has joked that she was part of the civil rights movement when she was in a pram.

In kindergarten in Oakland, California, she was part of a desegregation program that sent children from black neighbourhoods to school in rich white areas.

She also suffered racism from a young age. After her parents divorced when she was seven, she would visit her father in Palo Alto where his neighbours banned their children from playing with her and her sister because they were black.

Harris’ vice presidency is now coming at a pivotal time in the civil rights movement, said Kabria Baumgartner, associate professor and faculty fellow for equity and inclusion at New Hampshire University.

“It’s interesting that Kamala Harris’s historic ascension to the vice presidency coincides with the nationwide reckoning for racial justice after George Floyd’s killing on May 25, 2020, and the white nationalist insurrection on January 6, 2021,” she told The Independent.

“Our nation has endured some tough years. But I’m cautiously optimistic and hopeful now. I expect the Biden-Harris administration to unveil a comprehensive racial justice plan that includes rooting out white supremacy.”

 Harris with her husband, Doug Emhoff

While the first Bible will be a deliberate nod to Harris’s heritage as a woman of colour and her commitment to tackling racial injustice, the second will be a nod to one of the many inspirational women to have impacted her life.

It belonged to Regina Shelton – the woman she affectionately refers to as her second mother.

After her parents divorced, Harris and her sister Maya would visit Shelton’s home – which they called the house – every day after school.

Shelton would also take the two girls to church on Sundays.

Harris previously used Shelton’s Bible when she was sworn in as California AG and then US Senator.

“Without this woman, I wouldn’t be the senator I am today,” Harris said of Shelton in 2019.

Now, as the doting stepmother to husband Doug Emhoff’s children Ella, 21, and Cole, 26, Harris is herself a “second mother” and continues to push the boundaries of what society expects a maternal role to look like.

Harris, pictured here in 2011, was the first black person to serve as attorney general of California 

When her “big, blended family” take to the stage for her inauguration (in the words of Ella) it will look a little different to the traditional nuclear family that has long occupied Washington with nieces, husband’s ex-wives, stepchildren and so on. Ella told the New York Times that Momala – as they call her – is part of a three-person parenting squad alongside their father and his ex-wife Kerstin (who is friends with Harris and will join in with the inauguration celebrations).

At the Democratic National Convention when she accepted the vice presidential nomination, Harris said her mother taught her that family could take on many shapes and sizes.

“She taught us to put family first – the family you're born into and the family you choose,” she said.

Nunes said Harris’s very modern American family was  showing women that they did not have to choose between motherhood or a career, or follow outdated norms of what a woman’s role was.

“Very often throughout her campaign, people criticized her but she stood strong with her unbothered attitude saying this is 'how I am as a woman and I don’t have to choose’,” Nunes said.

Harris has also described her beloved Alpha Kappa Alpha – the black sorority she joined – as family.

Speculation has been building that her inauguration outfit will reflect this “family”.

Harris at the socially-distanced Democratic National Convention

Pearls have long been a symbol of AKA, with the founders known as the Twenty Pearls and all members given a badge adorned in 20 pearls.

Harris wore pearls at the DNC and avid Harris fans have vowed on social media to dress in “pearls and Chucks” in her honour on Wednesday.

There’s also much buzz around the possibility that she may wear a traditional sari for the inauguration ball in honour of her Indian heritage.

Such is the interest around her outfit choice that a TikTok video of Harris sporting a pair of socks reading “The future is female” went viral last week.

The company behind the socks – Gumball Poodle – has since been inundated with orders with its website warning of delays due to high demand.

That Harris has managed to become a role model in the man’s world of American politics is a sign of how powerful she will become, Carine Mardorossian, professor of English and Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at Buffalo University told The Independent.

“Usually women in politics are cast as too ‘angry’ like Hillary [Clinton] or too ‘weak’. They don’t have the privilege of the gray areas that men have and she has done a fantastic job of avoiding falling into these stereotypes,” she said.

“I think it’s so liberating to have a woman to be able to represent all different facets of her personality without being confined to a particular box.

“She is not being squeamish of letting people know who she is and what she represents.¨

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