A little over a month after Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights on Feb. 21, 1965, Donald J. Harris––Kamala Harris’s father––composed an insightful tribute to him in the Kingston Sunday Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper. At that time Harris was a student at the University of California, Berkeley completing his doctorate in economics.
The article, “Malcolm X—the Man and his Mission,” is a mini-biography of Malcolm’s life with very few missteps. It’s an odyssey that for many in the world now is quite familiar, although then the details were only gradually seeping into the public domain. Malcolm X’s subsequent autobiography, which was published shortly after his death, would illuminate his furious passage.
Malcolm, Harris wrote, summarizing his membership in the Nation of Islam, “was no ordinary Muslim-convert. He brought with him into the movement not only an awareness of personal hardship and injustice but also a passion to convert others; a determination to change the environment of his people; a sharp analytical mind and the consummate skill of a public speaker and debater.”
Near the end of the article, Harris quotes the late Rep. John Lewis, who at that time was chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. “More than anyone else he was able to articulate the deep feeling of the Negro masses…oppressed and downtrodden people of this country,” he said of Malcolm. In citing this brief quote Harris was not able to mention that Lewis had met Malcolm in Nairobi, Kenya in 1964 where he and his best friend Don Harris were touring the continent. Lewis’s meeting with Malcolm was as coincidental as the convergence of the two Donald Harrises in this article, and it’s doubtful if the Jamaican Harris knew of Don Harris since that information wasn’t that widely available in 1965.
Interesting, too, is the extent to which Kamala, now the vice presidential Democratic Party nominee, knew of her father’s admiration for Malcolm. Given her long estrangement from him and the fact that she was only a year-old when he wrote about Malcolm, she may not have heard of Malcolm until she was an adult. In her memoir “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” there is no mention of Malcolm and her longest reflection on her father is merely to note his ancestry, the weekend visits when she was very young, and his academic career. Kamala was five when her mother, Shyamala, and her father separated in 1969 and they divorced two years later.
Dr. Harris, 81, is now retired from teaching where during his remarkable academic journey he was the first African American to win tenure in the economics department at Stanford. The literary attributes expressed eloquently in his article on Malcolm were evident in the scholarly essays and reviews he published over the years, including his book “Capital Accumulation and Income Distribution” (1978).
According to a recent story in The New York Times, the breech between father and daughter was further exacerbated when Kamala, during an interview, jokingly said that growing up in a Jamaican family it was natural that she had smoked marijuana. He scolded her for that and wrote that his immediate Jamaican family “wish to categorically dissociate ourselves from this travesty.”
In her book Kamala makes no reference to this incident and she limits her comments on marijuana to the need of it being legalized. At the close of her book she thanks her father “who, when I was a young girl, encouraged me to be fearless.”