When the text from Joe Biden’s campaign flashed on her phone Tuesday afternoon, Dahlia Walker-Huntington said she screamed and kept screaming Kamala Harris’ name until her cockapoo, Tuxedo, began howling along.
It not just that Harris is also a Black woman. Or that she’s also a lawyer.
Walker-Huntington is among the legions of Jamaican immigrants in Florida, for whom the California senator’s multi-hyphenated background is a source of pride. If elected, Harris – the daughter of two immigrants – would become the nation’s first Black vice president, the first female vice president, the first Indian-American and the first Jamaican-American to ascend to the office.
Harris’ Jamaican-born father, Donald Harris, is an economist and professor emeritus at Stanford University; her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was a breast cancer researcher born in India.
Harris “epitomizes what America is today,” said Walker-Huntington, who emigrated from the island four decades ago and practices immigration law in Miramar, Florida. “She is a first-generation American, and only in America, in one generation could you reach where she is.”
I, too, am from the Caribbean – born and raised on an American island, St. Croix, but descended from people who came from all over what the late Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite once called “a whole underground continent of thought and feeling and history.”
We carry the archipelago within us, looking and listening, always, for bits of what we left behind. A bead on someone who makes a good guava tart. Figuring out the source of a Trinidadian lilt on a crowded elevator. And, then, there’s the habit – a preoccupation, really – with detecting the Caribbean heritage in the people around us.
To the nation, Shirley Chisholm represents the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to pursue a major-party nomination for the presidency. To me, she’s also the daughter of a seamstress from Barbados and a factory worker who came from Guyana. Colin Powell, the first African American to serve as Secretary of State? His parents hailed from Jamaica. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Barbados roots.
The celebrity and political roll call goes on: Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Susan Rice. Cicely Tyson, too.
Harris, who made a run last year for the Democratic nomination, has navigated public life as a Black woman in America.
That’s not to say she doesn’t embrace all of who she is. Harris quickly grows impatient with those who demand she claim one piece of her heritage over another.
“Proud American,” she shot back at one reporter last year when asked how she defines herself, given her Indian roots. “I am who I am,” she told The Washington Post.
Harris’ parents divorced when she was a young child. And she grew up in the multicultural mix of the Bay Area, where she and her sister, Maya, were raised largely by her mother. (Gopalan Harris, the daughter of an Indian diplomat, graduated from the University of Delhi at 19 and earned her doctorate from University of California, Berkeley at 25.)
But Harris, in her autobiography “The Truths We Hold,” said her mother “understood very well that she was raising two Black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as Black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud Black women.”
And Harris’ time as an undergrad at the nation’s most storied HBCU, Howard University, further shaped her identity – steeping her in traditions, such as the formidable sisterhood of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., the nation’s oldest Black sorority.
Who knows what will happen in the months ahead. But for the islanders keeping score – always reconstructing that continent of islands, if only in our minds – Harris will remain the first daughter of the West Indies on a major-party presidential ticket.
Back in Miramar, once Walker-Huntington finished screaming, she got to work – calling, texting and emailing the Caribbean folks she knows on the mainland.
“Oh, we’re already raising money,” she said.