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Kamala Harris and the History of South Asian America, by Nico Slate

Monday, May 3, 2021 at 11:00am

Virtual Event

When Madame Vice President, Kamala Harris, ran for president of the United States, news coverage focused on her unusual ethno-racial roots. Her Indian mother was from Chennai and her father, who is Black, was born in Jamaica. Some journalists also questioned whether progressive voters would be put-off by Harris’s past as a prosecutor and her reputation as something of a cautious centrist. The history of South Asian America offers a way to connect Harris’s family history to her politics—and to rethink what it means that Harris is now the Vice President of the United States. An important facet of her South Asian identity has been largely ignored: the fact that her mixed-race heritage connects Harris to the long history of South Asian Americans who never fit neatly in any one racial box. Put differently, it’s not just her mother who links Harris to the South Asian community; equally important is the fact that she has had to find her way outside conventional American racial categories. This talk will explore the racial borders of South Asian America by juxtaposing the life and career of Kamala Harris with the lives and activism of a range of other figures, including another famous Kamala: the feminist and anticolonial activist, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Through such comparisons, we will explore together histories of race, migration, and social struggle that continue to have profound resonance—not only in the United States but also in contemporary South Asia. 

Nico Slate is Professor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University. His research examines the history of struggles against racism, imperialism, and caste oppression in the United States and South Asia. He is the author of four books: Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India (Harvard University Press, 2012), The Prism of Race: W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and the Colored World of Cedric Dover (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), Gandhi’s Search for the Perfect Diet: Eating with the World in Mind (University of Washington Press, 2019), and Lord Cornwallis Is Dead: The Struggle for Democracy in the United States and India (Harvard University Press, 2019).

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Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Asian Studies, South Asia Program, History, Asian American Studies Program, Government, Asian & Asian American Center





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