Editor’s Note: Richard J. Reddick is associate dean for equity, community engagement, and outreach for the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, where he also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, and the Warfield Center for African and African American Studies. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
In a summer filled with dismaying reports about coronavirus, scenes of activists confronting systemic racism and evidence everywhere of a nation in turmoil, many of us welcomed the announcement of Sen. Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s 2020 running mate as a reprieve. Harris is the personification of the American dream.
Just look at her background, which she brings up often as a major influence in her career path. Harris is the daughter of immigrant parents who came to the US in pursuit of higher education and reached prominence in their fields – her Jamaican father became an economics professor at Stanford, and her Indian mother was a breast cancer researcher. Kamala Harris graduated from Howard University and the UC Hastings School of Law and went on to break through the glass ceiling as the first woman and first Black person to serve as California’s attorney general and the second Black woman to serve as a US Senator.
For many of the just over 1 million Americans who emigrated from Jamaica or are of Jamaican ancestry, like myself, the fact that Harris’ heritage is widely being discussed helps to diversify how Jamaicans are seen, by showing us in the political and academic realm. Harris’ family offers an example of how Jamaican Americans have refuted stereotypes and forged paths to success.
Our culture is familiar in the US in many ways. Most people know that reggae, ska and dancehall music emerged from Jamaica. And it’s hard to escape ads for beach resorts on the island or to be unaware of Usain Bolt’s status as the fastest man on Earth. But if you asked everyday Americans about scholars such as Harvard historian Orlando Patterson, Stanford neurosurgeon Odette Harris, Macalester professor and novelist Marlon James and Harris’ own father, Donald Harris – exemplars in their fields – they probably wouldn’t know these names or their work.
Additionally, so much of our identity has been presented for comedic effect. Children of the 80s and 90s will recall the beloved comedy sketch program “In Living Color,” which featured a skit “Hey Mon!” The punchline was that each Jamaican character had an absurd number of jobs. While it was a funny sketch, it advanced a stereotype of Jamaicans as automatons, which supplanted a previous stereotype of Jamaicans as lazy marijuana smokers.
Think about some common Halloween costumes; we’ve all seen ones with dreadlocks and marijuana joints – which presents a problematic depiction of adherents of Rastafarianism.
This is partly why the most compelling, and pride-stirring aspect of Sen. Harris’ story is the prominence of education in her life story. She has stated that her parents’ pursuit of education brought them from Jamaica and India to Berkeley – a narrative that Jamaican Americans can relate to. Though I am the first in my family to attend college, my parents raised my sister and me with the understanding that education was the most important priority in our lives. My parents ensured that we had all we needed to achieve academic success, and did not tolerate anything less than our best effort. This is a bond that Jamaican Americans all seem to share – evident in the fact that the longest running TV show (50 years) in Jamaica is the “School Challenge Quiz,” where high school students compete for national bragging rights and scholarships – something akin to the Scripps National Spelling Bee meets “Family Feud” meets “Jeopardy!” One can imagine that Harris will feature prominently in the next season’s quiz.
Without a doubt, her achievement is being celebrated joyfully by the media back in the island nation of just under 3 million, as it was when we learned of the Jamaican ancestry of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. The announcement was particularly sweet coming less than a week after Jamaican independence day (August 6), providing another cause for celebration.
As November draws near and polls show that Biden is leading, many Jamaicans are hopeful that we will see Harris replace Mike Pence as the vice president, but even if that doesn’t happen, this election cycle will forever be a shining moment of pride for those on the island and the diaspora.