Folks have come to know me as “Hamal.” That is because I have a Muslim name, Mohamed Hamal-uDin, and, as happens in many parts of the world, the ﬁrst part is the surname, the second part is the “call” name and the third part, I suppose is the tribe from which it came, though I’ve never had connections with any tribe. For the ﬁrst 15 years of my life, though, my name was slightly different.
My father registered my birth in Guyana, as the law required, naming me “Mohamed Kamaludin” – with a “K” – and did not obtain a birth certiﬁcate. But one was needed for me to take the grade school graduation test to show my age. Dad obtained a copy from the registrar of births but it seemed that the ofﬁcial who originally registered my birth wrote the “K” with a flourish and the one who copied it for my birth certiﬁcate mistook the “K” for an “H” and I became Mohamed Hamaludin. Those who know me from my boyhood days still call me “Kamal,” not “Hamal.”
“Kamal,” my original ﬁrst name, is the male version of – you guessed it – “Kamala” and so I too am laying claim to a piece of Joe Biden’s running mate. Yes, there are male and female versions of the name which, in Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, means “lotus.” (Incidentally, “hamal,” an Arabic word, means “porter.”)
And, as a Guyanese, I have another claim to a piece of the vicepresidential candidate – from her father’s side, the Caribbean, or, as folks in that sub-region more correctly call it, the West Indies – the place that got its name after Christopher Columbus set sail for India, got lost and so if it was not the East Indies, it must be the West Indies.
The vice-presidential candidate has a middle name, “Devi,” also Sanskrit, meaning “goddess,” and both her names are from her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who was born in the Indian city Chennai, formerly Madras. Her surname is from her father, Donald J. Harris, who was born in Jamaica and has African roots. Hence, Kamala Devi Harris: part Indian or Asian, part Jamaican or West Indian, part African, child of immigrants, all woman, all American.
Incidentally, I also have Indian heritage, from my paternal grandfather, which gives me yet another claim to her. The Indian angle brings into focus the relationship between Indians and African Americans. Sharmila Sen, editorial director of Harvard University Press, in the Washington Post, pointed to “anti-black racism” in the Indian community, describing it as “a heady mixture: made-in-India colorism, socially engineered anti-Black bias of the British imperial strain, and indigenous, all-American racism. “ “As we Indian Americans thrill in our new sense of belonging and rush to claim Harris as our own, we might also use this moment to reckon with our anti-Black racism…” said Sen, who was born in Calcutta. “Our story of how we became American, taught the substitute teacher to pronounce our names and snuck a few spices into the cranberry chutney each Thanksgiving must be retold by Indians without partitioning ourselves from our Black co-citizens.”
In a country whose majority white population has dominated all aspects of life even before the founding of the republic, Harris’ selection must be a cause for celebration, as was that of Barack Obama, the ﬁrst African American president. Obama’s name, too, represents diversity at its best, drawn from Hebrew, Arabic, the Fang and Luo languages of parts of Africa – and his late mother, Ann Durham, a white woman from Wichita, Kansas.
References to both Obama and Harris as African American stem not from skin color but from the “one drop rule” dating back to slavery which stipulated that a person with any trace of African blood cannot be anything but “black.”
President Donald Trump entered politics falsely claiming that Obama is not an American citizen. This “birtherism” garbage is now directed at Harris. In both cases, it is not about citizenship but about race. Trump is, in effect, saying that neither satisﬁes the “one drop rule” and so are not white and therefore cannot be vicepresident or president. He is a son of immigrants but he can be president because he is pure white.
That stupidity aside, the exuberance over Harris must be tempered with the understanding that it is not skin color or parentage or gender or a combination which must be the focus. Rather, it is how those attributes inform a person’s actions.
Clarence Thomas has been a U.S. Supreme Court justice for 28 years and, based on his record, it would have made no difference if President George H.W. Bush had nominated a white man instead of him. In contrast, the late Thurgood Marshall, whom Thomas succeeded in the supposed “black” seat, took to the court not just black skin but, more importantly, the stoutest defense and advancement of causes dear to African Americans and other “minorities.” Marshall was not a token.
Harris is unlikely to be window dressing for a presidential candidate in his 70s, white and maybe left of center. She has the capacity to help Biden show that, for all 331 million Americans, “it is far better to light the candle than curse the darkness,” as the English Methodist minister William L. Watkinson suggested in 1907.
It positively makes me want to stop being a porter and resume being a lotus flower, which, incidentally, is “a symbol of purity, enlightenment, selfregeneration and rebirth.”