Of all the soundbites that I have followed following the US election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris last week, none was anywhere near as captivating – or original – as Trinb social media’s “A dougla in the White House.”
Our own Kamla could have avoided much embarrassment had she had more confidence in turning to our own culture for wordly inspiration to congratulate the American President and Vice President-elect.
Congratulations poured in from world leaders last weekend after the US news media finally called the presidential election there, including messages from the Jamaican Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, and Caricom chair, Vincentian PM Ralph Gonsalves, which specifically acknowledged Harris’s Caribbean parentage.
Gonsalves’s message also noted Harris’s South Asian heritage, a welcome acknowledgement by a regional leader of the Caribbean’s place in the South Asian diaspora. Oddly, our own Kamla did neither in her borrowed salutation. Indian premier Narendra Modi tweeted that Harris’s election was “a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis, but also for all Indian-Americans.”
You won’t be seeing any jhandis planted on the White House’s south lawn or on the compound of the US Naval Observatory (the US Vice President’s residence); Harris is a Baptist.
But while her immigrant Indian parentage and chittis were featured in the “victory” speech she gave last week Saturday night, tellingly missing from her brief words was any shoutout at all to her Caribbean heritage or identity.
Arguably Harris’s greatest acknowledgement on the campaign trail of those Jamaican roots came in a radio interview with popular radio host Charlamagne tha God in February of last year, when she and Biden were still competitors for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Asked the question all American presidential and vice presidential candidates now seem required to answer – about smoking weed – and its legalisation, she turned to the playful, “Half my family’s from Jamaica. Are you kidding me?”
Her Jamaican-born father was not in on the joke – or her just-weeks-old presidential campaign. Donald Harris had a colossal attack of respectabilityitis, and rushed to shame his daughter in the online media, publishing a statement that “My dear departed grandmothers…as well as my deceased parents, must be turning in their grave right now to see their family’s name, reputation and proud Jamaican identity being connected, in any way, jokingly or not with the fraudulent stereotype of a pot-smoking joy seeker and in the pursuit of identity politics.”
Harris, who had talked in that Breakfast Club radio appearance about smoking weed in her university years, had also answered a question about the music that she listened to while getting high, naming rap artists Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur – both of whom began their recording careers after she had completed her schooling. Those remarks have triggered their own debate – this time among African Americans– about her pursuit of identity politics.
Objectively, her social milieu growing up – even her formative years at Howard University – appears to have made her more African American than Caribbean.
As much as we may want to celebrate it, Kamala’s Caribbean heritage – and whatever identity she has made of it – may be of little impact to the region. It’s her administration’s policies and actions that will matter. On climate change. On the war on drugs. On Venezuela. On development finance.
Being an American of Caribbean descent doesn’t determine one’s position on any of these issues with any depth. Further, the historic ticket she is part of, a result of septuagenarian Joe Biden’s unlikely ascent as frontrunner, might easily be described in local political language as the US Democratic Party being willing to “put” any crapaud in a blue tie/pants suit to defeat Donald Trump.
Nonetheless, there is something wonderful and exciting – even delightfully transgressive – about putting a dougla in the White House – in the very same way there was rejoicing over Barack Obama’s election. It means something more than the cleverness of the meme.
Harris’s sex is equally meaningful. No doubt Kamala’s life experiences will profoundly shape her approach to the job in a way that we want public offices to be shaped.
So I’m joining in both the smugness and the sincerity of our celebration of our White House dougla.