In Canada, Kamala Harris, a Disco-Dancing Teenager, Yearned for Home


MONTREAL — There were heirs to Canadian fortunes who lived in hillside mansions and arrived at their high school in luxury cars.

There were children of Caribbean immigrants who commuted by bus or subway from a historically Black neighborhood.

There were Anglophones, Francophones and kids from Chinatown.

And then there was Kamala Harris, an extroverted American teenager who had moved to Montreal from California at age 12, dreamed of becoming a lawyer and liked dancing to Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.

Thrown into one of Montreal’s most diverse public high schools, the young Ms. Harris — whose father was from Jamaica and mother from India — identified as African-American, her friends from high school recalled. At the same time, they said, she deftly navigated the competing racial and social divisions at the school.

“My mother tried to make it sound like an adventure, taking us to buy our first down jackets and mittens, as though we were going to be explorers of the great northern winter,” she wrote. “But it was hard for me to see it that way.”

Anu Chopra Sharma, who was in Ms. Harris’s French and math classes, recalled the two bonding over having Indian names.

“She said to me, ‘You have an Indian name but you don’t look Indian,’ and I said the same to her,” she said.

“You couldn’t easily label her,” Ms. Sharma added.

Although Ms. Harris mingled widely, Ms. Kagan said “she identified as being African-American.” She found belonging in the Black community, and “was drawn to the Little Burgundy kids.”

She recalled that she and Ms. Harris attended Black community dance parties and griped about having to be home by 11 p.m.

Above all, she found sisterhood in an all-female dance troupe, Super Six, later Midnight Magic. The girls wore glittering homemade costumes and performed aerobically charged disco moves in front of the school and at homes for the elderly. Ms. Harris was called Angel.

“Maya was more of the brainiac, every test 100 percent, Kamala was a bit more laid back,” he said. “They were always so organized compared to the rest of us.”

He recalled that the Harris sisters played down their relative affluence. “I didn’t even realize at the time that their mother was this high-powered doctor.”

Ms. Harris was prepared and forceful in intellectual discussions, her classmates recalled. She was also active — performing in fashion shows, working on the yearbook and part of the Pep Club, whose members yelled and sang at school events accompanied by a rabbit mascot, Purple Peter.

At the heart of it all, however, was her family life.

Ms. Harris’s mother was an abiding influence. Ms. Kagan recalled the warmth of their home, where Indian rice dishes simmered and studying was mandatory. “Her mom was strong and instilled that in Kamala,” she said.

Every summer, the girls filled a freezer chest with blanched tomatoes in plastic bags, sucking the air out with straws. The tomatoes were used for soups and sauces.



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