Politics

Kamala Harris grew up in a mostly white world. Then she went to a black university in a black city.

When anyone challenges her racial identity, the presidential candidate points to her four years at Howard University.

From left: Karen Gibbs, Kamala Harris and Valerie Pippen at Homecoming in 1986-1987. (Courtesy of Karen Gibbs)

Kamala Harris wanted to go to a black school. That’s what black folks called Howard University in the early 1980s when Harris was a teenager considering her future.

Harris, she would say later, was seeking an experience wholly different from what she had long known. She’d attended majority-white schools her entire life — from elementary school in Berkeley, Calif., to high school in Montreal. Her parents’ professional lives and their personal story were bound up in majority-white institutions. Her father, an economist from Jamaica, was teaching at Stanford University. Her mother, a cancer researcher from India, had done her graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley, where the couple had met and fallen in love. And Harris’s younger sister would eventually enroll at Stanford.

Harris wanted to be surrounded by black students, black culture and black traditions at the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities.

“When you’re at an HBCU,” Harris says, “and especially one with the size and with the history of Howard University — and also in the context of also being in D.C., which was known forever as being ‘Chocolate City’ — it just becomes about you understanding that there is a whole world of people who are like you. It’s not just about there are a few of us who may find each other.”

Students were drawn to Howard, once called the “black Harvard,” because of its legacy. They believed in its conservative values of racial uplift and personal responsibility. A generation of post-civil rights movement children, whose college choices were hindered only by their grades and finances, picked Howard for a lot of reasons, but all of those reasons touched on self-identity — on how they saw themselves moving through a predominantly white world.

At Howard, Harris would be studying in the same classrooms as Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston, Stokely Carmichael and Amiri Baraka, striding past the law school that educated Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and civil rights activist Vernon Jordan.

It was where Harris could become the woman that her mother always knew her to be: unquestionably, simply, black.

Howard University, founded in Washington in 1867, is considered the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities. (Photo by Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)
Like many other students, Harris was drawn to Howard because of its legacy. (Photo by Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Howard University, founded in Washington in 1867, is considered the crown jewel of historically black colleges and universities. (Photo by Kate Patterson for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Like many other students, Harris was drawn to Howard because of its legacy. (Photo by Kate Patterson for The Washington Post)

“Her mother was Indian,” says Lenore Pomerance, who was a close friend of Shyamala Gopalan, “but in the ’60s, you were either black or white. There was no real distinction between Caribbean or Indian.”

“Howard would be a place to solidify her identity as a woman of color,” Pomerance says.

As Harris campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard is central to the 54-year-old senator’s personal narrative and her political identity. To those who see her white husband, question her time in California as a prosecutor in a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes people of color and wonder about her empathy for black men, Howard is her rejoinder. It’s her knowing nod to black voters, her character witness for anyone who would say that her personal heritage is disconnected from the story of African Americans and this country’s lineage of slavery.

“When people challenge her blackness, I always say, ‘If she went to Howard, it means she’s one of us,’ ” says Howard grad and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Jenice Armstrong. “She comes from there. No one should challenge her blackness.”

Or as alumni say in an elliptical call-and-response: H-U! You know!

Only hours after announcing her candidacy in January on “Good Morning America,” Harris stood at a lectern at Howard where she took questions from reporters. It was a homecoming as political tableau, with Harris telling all who were listening that the university is “one of the most important aspects of my life.”

She touts her membership in Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the oldest of the historically black sororities and one that was founded at Howard. Sorority sisters organize on her behalf and vouch for her at get-to-know-you sip and sits. She is one of them, even if they mispronounce her name. (It’s KAM-ala.) Howard is a talking point.

“I became an adult at Howard University,” Harris says in an interview. “Howard very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being and meaning and reasons for being.”

A world of black abundance

Harris was 17 when she arrived at Howard her freshman year. Friends remember her big earrings and red lipstick. Her dark hair, clipped into curly layers, framed her face. She was a cool girl with honey-colored skin. She was disarmingly warm with a boisterous laugh — the same one that punctuates her campaign speeches.

Cramton Auditorium, the site of freshman orientation, was worn and shabby, as were many of the facilities. But the attraction to Howard, founded in 1867, was not the splendor of its lecture halls. Howard was people and inspiration. It was just-us, unvarnished straight talk to a generation of whom much was expected because at long last anything seemed possible.

Parents didn’t send their children to Howard to become revolutionaries — to upend the system. They sent them there to learn how to excel in spite of it.

At freshman convocation, Dr. Leon Howard Sullivan, the activist pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia, who fought for what has been described as “conscientious capitalism” addressed the incoming class of 1986: “The whites might run this country, but they don’t own it,” he told them. Then Sullivan, who died in 2001, hammered home the importance of self-reliance: “Blacks cannot depend on the white man because he has crossed us too many times already.”

I became an adult at Howard University. [It] very directly influenced and reinforced — equally important — my sense of being and meaning and reasons for being.
Kamala Harris

Harris was surrounded by first-generation college students, but also the black elite, children of professionals who had attended predominantly white schools. They’d been the only black cheerleader-theater-nerd-brainiac in the student body. Before a lot of these teenagers came to Howard, blackness was narrowly defined. Howard gave them a wide-ranging view of themselves long before popular culture offered up “Black-ish,” the Shonda Rhimes universe or the splendor of Wakanda.

There were African American students from Los Angeles with their roller skates and shorts, hip-hoppers from New York, middle American preppies and wealthy Nigerian students who saw 1980s Reaganomics as a boon to their entrepreneurial aspirations. The campus teemed with the visual cacophony of thousands of young people all jockeying for primacy in a conversation about all the different ways of being black.

All of it awakened Harris to the empowerment that comes from being part of a multitude.

“It was more, for me, about the numerosity than it was the diversity,” Harris says. “I grew up in a community where there were many representations of diversity. Going to Howard, there were so many [black people]! And they’re all in your age group, in your phase of life.”

As a kid, Harris had always been one of the few — a test case, as well as a foreigner. During the first Democratic debate in June, Harris recalled how she’d helped integrate Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley when she was bused from her modest neighborhood to a wealthier, whiter part of the city. In her recounting, Harris was a first-grader in pigtails, a leading character in the grand social experiment of diversity by school board mandate.

Harris attended mostly white schools in Berkeley, Calif., and Montreal. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)
Harris's mother, Shyamala, an immigrant from India, was 25 when she had her baby girl. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)
Harris's father, Donald, an immigrant from Jamaica, holds her in April 1965. He was studying for a doctorate in economics at the University of California at Berkeley. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)
TOP: Harris attended mostly white schools in Berkeley, Calif., and Montreal. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris) BOTTOM LEFT: Harris's mother, Shyamala, an immigrant from India, was 25 when she had her baby girl. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris) BOTTOM RIGHT: Harris's father, Donald, an immigrant from Jamaica, holds her in April 1965. He was studying for a doctorate in economics at the University of California at Berkeley. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

Harris told the story as political gamesmanship — to underscore how wrong she thought rival Democrat Joe Biden had been on busing 50 years ago. Her voice cracked under the weight of the issue’s complexity: There is an individual cost to social progress, one that is virtually unknowable.

Harris’s personal stories about race are emotional but spare. Impressionistic. They are her stories but really, they could be the stories of an entire generation. H-U! You know! A sentence begins, then stops, then trails off with a “Well, I mean ...” What sort of brief exposition can she give when a full history lesson is really what’s required?

On the hustings, she repeats the tale of the neighbor’s child who told her, and her younger sister Maya, that she couldn’t play with them because they were black. There were the times when her mother, the scientist, was dismissed as a maid when they were shopping. In an interview with The Washington Post, she tells an anecdote about an unnamed journalist who asked her why she’d ever choose a black school over the Ivy League.

She sounded a bit exasperated. Maybe indignant. Definitely impatient.

How did you respond, senator? “Well, I mean.”

To paraphrase Morrison: Going to a black school doesn’t limit one’s education — it expands it.

At 12, Harris and her sister moved to Montreal with their mother. Her parents were divorced and Gopalan had a teaching position at McGill University and a research post at the Jewish General Hospital in a city that was nearly all white. Harris struggled to learn French at a public school, Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, near the hospital.

At Howard, she was finally part of the majority. At Howard, the story of black Americans was not relegated to a single African American Studies department. It was central to everything. A truth became clear to her: “It is not a niche to be black in America.”

Harris threw herself into a world of black abundance, into a place where there was a constant drumbeat of exceptionalism.

Alumni boast about a Howard swagger. They see it in Harris now — in her impatient questioning as a senator, in her tone of voice as a candidate that can read as confident, cocky and condescending all at once.

Fierce, poised and ‘pulled together’

Harris’s first dorm was an off-campus apartment building leased by the university. Eton Tower, just off Thomas Circle, was in the city’s prostitution zone. In the wee hours, Washington’s dysfunction played out on the streets. And in the 1980s, the drama was operatic.

Twenty-six percent of the university’s mostly black neighbors lived in poverty. The city was ensnared in a crack epidemic and becoming the country’s murder capital — a title it would claim when violent crime peaked in 1991.

Harris’s energy wasn’t focused on what ailed the city or its complicated politics. Her passions and activities centered on the kind of person she wanted to be — not the kind of world she wanted to legislate.

She ran for freshman representative on the liberal arts student council, but she wasn’t one of the campus’s leading young politicians. She was a skilled debater, but being on the debate team was an intellectual pursuit, not a civic one. She joined the bus loads of students who rallied against apartheid in front of the South African Embassy. Melanie Flowers marched alongside Harris.

“When they started arresting students that day, we looked at each other and thought, ‘Okay, this is a pivotal point.’ I had to decide: If I got arrested, it was a one-way ticket home to Houston,” Flowers says.


As a Howard freshman, Harris and classmate Gwen Whitfield attend a protest demanding an end to apartheid and calling for divestment from South Africa. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris)

This was years before “woke” became a righteous declaration, decades before black Twitter outrage and the emergence of cancel culture. Success within the system was still a laudable act of subversiveness — whether as an investment banker, a corporate lawyer or a district attorney.

Flowers and Harris didn’t get arrested. But they kept protesting.

Harris built enduring female friendships at Howard — relationships that as an adult have been nurtured across hundreds of miles and despite political differences. The women of Howard were tenacious and dynamic — and comfortable in their glory. Howard impressed upon them the power of intellect, as well as the value of their own poise, charm and beauty.

At Howard, Harris has said, women could be “homecoming queen and a valedictorian.” Black beauty and intelligence were bound tightly in a complex web, one that reflected a history in which black Americans were derided as having neither.

The central grassy plaza known as the The Yard was a place for peacocking, especially on Friday afternoons, when Harris joined the parade of students wearing Ralph Lauren polo shirts, creased Calvin Klein jeans, silk blouses and high heels. Students showed themselves in vivid color at a time when they risked invisibility in the broader culture. Even now, Harris’s style is always “pulled together.” That’s the phrase favored by alumni. Pulled together. It’s considered and finished off: pumps, pearls, her hair just so.

Going to Howard, there were so many [black people]! And they’re all in your age group, in your phase of life.
Kamala Harris

Harris was among a group of freshman women who caught the eye of the brothers from Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. The Kappas invited her to become a sweetheart. Founded in 1911, the Kappas are one of the “divine nine” historically black Greek letter organizations. The sweethearts were the brothers’ helpmates on community projects and when planning parties.

Through the lens of 2019, the sweethearts seem silly and retrograde. But when Harris was at Howard, students delighted in pretty girls in tiaras wearing bedazzled sashes. Ebony magazine published pictures of the reigning queens of HBCUs, and that magazine had a place of honor on the coffee table of every grandma and auntie.

Being a sweetheart was good for one’s social life. It put you in the center of it all, including rip-roaring house parties with a soundtrack of new wave, go-go and rap. Harris threw her own parties when she’d housesit for Pomerance, her mother’s friend, who lived in Washington’s Kalorama Triangle neighborhood.

Sophomore year, Harris moved onto campus and into Slowe Hall. She and Karen Gibbs, her friend and dorm neighbor, often cooked dinner together in the building’s communal kitchen or shared the care packages of Indian meals that Gopalan would send. The two young women talked and talked about their future.

“Kamala was always concerned with your life goals,” Gibbs says. “She was always the realist.”

Harris, an economics major, wanted to pursue law and was considering public service. “I think she was clear she wanted to go into the district attorney’s office,” recalls Flowers.

On Sundays, Harris and Gibbs explored the city’s black churches. Gibbs recalls attending St. Augustine Catholic Church, founded by a group of emancipated blacks, and Metropolitan AME Church, where Frederick Douglass was eulogized, as well as New Bethel Baptist Church, where civil rights activist and congressman Walter Fauntroy was pastor.

To hear Harris speak in front of a large audiences now, when her voice rises for emphasis, you can hear the cadences of traditional black preachers — an almost lyrical quality that can turn an excoriation into something more poetic.

When Harris greets smaller crowds, the fiery hermeneutics are tamped down. Her delivery is punctuated by a neighborly “Good morning!” She offers a warm, teeth-visible smile even as she speaks of serious things. This is Harris as soror. Soror: Latin for sister; never to be mistaken for sorority girl; a lifelong member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

A soror wields her poise like a spear; she can make sisterhood feel like a bomb threat.

The 1986 Howard University yearbook. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Harris and her Howard classmates. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
LEFT: The 1986 Howard University yearbook. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) RIGHT: Harris and her Howard classmates. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

AKA, founded in 1908, has a proud but complicated history. In its early days, it was plagued with colorism. (One alumna still remembers a flier from the 1980s that the sorority sent out inviting women to an event: “Come with your hair flowing.”) With about 300,000 members worldwide, AKA, with its signature pink and green, is represented in virtually every corner of culture.

Harris was one of 38 women who pledged AKA in 1986. She was a second-semester senior and Flowers, who became a member her sophomore year, was her sponsor. It was late to pledge a sorority, but Harris had spent much of her sophomore year focused on debate. Junior year, the chapter didn’t accept new members. Harris was intent on joining, she says, because “one of the people in my life who had a great deal of influence on me was my Auntie Chris, and she went to Howard University and pledged AKA,” referring to family friend Christine Simmons, a former chapter president, who died in 2015. “When I was a kid, I’d go to sorority events with her. I actually remember that one of my summer jobs when I was in high school was to sort through all of her papers and organize them. And every one of those papers was either pink or green.”

In the late winter cold, Harris stood shoulder to shoulder with her “line sisters” in front of Rankin Chapel. With their chins thrust upward and wearing matching coats, they’d recite a poem or be quizzed on sorority lore by senior members.

Harris didn’t have much time to enjoy undergraduate sorority life. But sisterhood and its benefits last a lifetime. In June, when Harris paid a campaign visit to Columbia, S.C., she was invited to stand on the side porch of a grand mansion, where ceiling fans swirled in the steamy air, to sell herself to potential voters — many of them black and most of them women. She was introduced by a fiercely poised soror who attested to Harris’s integrity by simply calling her a “sister of the ivy.”


Harris mingles at the Alpha Kappa Alpha Pink Ice Gala in Columbia, S.C., in January. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg News)

By the time Harris graduated from Howard in 1986, black centrism had notched more victories: Jesse Jackson had energized the campus with his presidential bid. His daughter Santita was a student there and that made the civil rights activist Howard family. Congress had created a federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. And Harris was headed to the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. She would go on to become district attorney of San Francisco, California attorney general and now, her home state’s junior senator.

Then-Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.) addressed about 2,000 Howard graduates on a Saturday morning in May. “If you’re born black, you better be prepared if you are going to play on the court of life not to take time out and complain,” Gray said, “but to run faster, shoot straighter and jump higher.”

Looking back, Harris sees Howard as symbolic of the experience of black people writ large. Their story is diverse and complex — and so often untold.

“Some of the most robust, well-attended and vibrant classes were about the African diaspora,” Harris says. Learning about that history “is the richness of the experience of going to Howard University.”

“And it is sadly an experience that a lot of people don’t have.”

A shared language

Less than 24 hours after Harris said her piece on that "Gone With the Wind” porch in Columbia, S.C., a drum line greets the candidate as she descends the escalator into the dreary bowels of the Metropolitan Convention Center. Teenagers from Lower Richland High School, with bass drums holstered to their chest, boom out a greeting as she makes her entrance at the South Carolina Democratic Convention. The day will be a long blur, with speeches from 21 presidential candidates; might as well start the morning with an adrenaline shot of attention.

Harris, in an ecru plaid suit and understated necklace, still loves to dance. She claps and sways to the gritty rhythm as it pounds through the corridors.

A second drum line waits down the hall, in a small meeting room half-filled with volunteers. A group of bright-eyed munchkins from Killian Elementary School rat-a-tat-tat a welcome on snare drums as Harris steps onto a mini-stage.

“You guys are so good,” she coos in a high soprano. “Look at our young leaders! Can we applaud our young leaders? Oh my goodness!”

The kids are de rigueur. The drum lines are campaign showmanship. But the basses and snares also acknowledge the band traditions of HBCUs, where the drums don’t just speak — they extol and brag. They’re a language shared by Harris and this state’s black voters who possess outsize clout in the Democratic nomination. And Harris wants to make something clear: She’s a proud graduate of Howard.

It’s a black school.


Harris speaks to supporters at a meet-and-greet campaign event in South Carolina in June. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Credits: Robin Givhan

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