This is an excerpt from "The Truths We Hold" by Kamala Harris, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Kamala Harris. Published with permission
Most mornings, my husband, Doug, wakes up before me and reads the news in bed. If I hear him making noises—a sigh, a groan, a gasp—I know what kind of day it’s going to be.
November 8, 2016, had started well -- the last day of my campaign for the U.S. Senate. I spent the day meeting as many more voters as I could, and of course cast a vote myself at a neighborhood school up the street from our house. We were feeling pretty good. We had rented a huge place for my Election Night party, with a balloon drop waiting to go. But first I was going out for dinner with family and close friends—a tradition dating back to my first campaign. People had flown in from all across the country, even overseas, to be with us -- my aunts and cousins, my in-laws, my sister’s in-laws, and more, all gathered for what we hoped would be a very special night.
I was staring out the car window, reflecting on how far we’d come, when I heard one of Doug’s signature groans.
“You gotta look at this,” he said, handing me his phone. Early results for the presidential election were coming in. Something was happening—something bad. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, the gap between the two candidates had shrunk considerably, and I was inwardly groaning as well. The New York Times’ probability meter was suggesting it was going to be a long, dark night.
We settled in for a meal in a small room off the main restaurant. Emotions and adrenaline were running high, but not for the reasons we had anticipated. On the one hand, while polls hadn’t yet closed in California, we were optimistic that I was going to win. Yet even as we prepared for that hard-earned celebration, all eyes were on our screens as state after state came back with numbers that told a troubling story.
At a certain point, my nine-year-old godson, Alexander, came up to me with big tears welling in his eyes. I assumed one of the other kids in our group had been teasing him about something.
“Come here, little man. What’s wrong?”
Alexander looked up and locked eyes with mine. His voice was trembling.
“Auntie Kamala, that man can’t win. He’s not going to win, is he?” Alexander’s worry broke my heart. I didn’t want anyone making a child feel that way. Eight years earlier, many of us had cried tears of joy when Barack Obama was elected president. And now, to see Alexander’s fear . . . His father, Reggie, and I took him outside to try to console him. “Alexander, you know how sometimes superheroes are facing a big challenge because a villain is coming for them? What do they do when that happens?”
“They fight back,” he whimpered.
“That’s right. And they fight back with emotion, because all the best superheroes have big emotions just like you. But they always fight back, right? So that’s what we’re going to do.”
Shortly after, the Associated Press called my race. We were still at the restaurant.
“I can’t thank you all enough for being with me every step of the way all the time, all the time,” I told my incredibly loving and supportive family and friends. “It means so much to me.” I was overwhelmed with gratitude, both for the people in that room and the people I had lost along the way, especially my mother. I tried to savor the moment, and I did, if briefly. But, like everyone else, I soon turned my eyes back to the television.
After dinner, we headed to our Election Night venue, where more than a thousand people had gathered for the party. I was no longer a candidate for office. I was a U.S. senator-elect—the first black woman from my state, and the second in the nation’s history, to earn that job. I had been elected to represent more than thirty-nine million people—roughly one out of every eight Americans from all backgrounds and walks of life. It was—and is—a humbling and extraordinary honor. My team clapped and cheered as I joined them in the greenroom behind the stage. It all still felt more than a little surreal. None of us had fully processed what was happening. They formed a circle around me as I thanked them for everything they’d done. We were a family, too, and we had been through an incredible journey together. Some of the folks in the room had been with me since my first campaign for district attorney. But now, almost two years after the start of our campaign, we had a new mountain to take.
I had written a speech based on the assumption that Hillary Clinton would become our first woman president. As I went onstage to greet my supporters, I left that draft behind. I looked out at the room. It was packed with people, from the floor to the balcony. Many were in a state of shock as they watched the national returns. I told the crowd we had a task in front of us. I said the stakes were high. We had to be committed to bringing our country together, to doing what was required to protect our fundamental values and ideals. I thought of Alexander and all the children when I posed a question:
“Do we retreat or do we fight? I say we fight. And I intend to fight!”
I went home that night with my extended family, many of whom were staying with us. We all went into our respective rooms, changed into sweats, and then joined one another in the living room. Some of us were sitting on couches. Others on the floor. We all planted our- selves in front of the television.
No one really knew what to say or do. Each of us was trying to cope in our own way. I sat down on the couch with Doug and ate an entire family-size bag of classic Doritos. Didn’t share a single chip.
But I did know this: one campaign was over, but another was about to begin. A campaign that called on us all to enlist. This time, a battle for the soul of our nation. In the years since, we’ve seen an administration align itself with white supremacists at home and cozy up to dictators abroad; rip babies from their mothers’ arms in grotesque violation of their human rights; give corporations and the wealthy huge tax cuts while ignoring the middle class; derail our fight against climate change; sabotage health care and imperil a woman’s right to control her own body; all while lashing out at seemingly everything and everyone, including the very idea of a free and independent press.
We are better than this. Americans know we’re better than this. But we’re going to have to prove it. We’re going to have to fight for it. On July 4, 1992, one of my heroes and inspirations, Thurgood Marshall, gave a speech that deeply resonates today. “We cannot play ostrich,” he said. “Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work.
We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred, and the mistrust.”
This book grows out of that call to action, and out of my belief that our fight must begin and end with speaking truth.
I believe there is no more important and consequential antidote for these times than a reciprocal relationship of trust. You give and you receive trust. And one of the most important ingredients in a relationship of trust is that we speak truth. It matters what we say. What we mean. The value we place on our words—and what they are worth to others.
We cannot solve our most intractable problems unless we are honest about what they are, unless we are willing to have difficult conversations and accept what facts make plain.
We need to speak truth: that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and anti-Semitism are real in this country, and we need to confront those forces. We need to speak truth: that, with the exception of Native Americans, we all descend from people who weren’t born on our shores -- whether our ancestors came to America willingly, with hopes of a prosperous future, or forcibly, on a slave ship, or desperately, to escape a harrowing past.
We cannot build an economy that gives dignity and decency to American workers unless we first speak truth; that we are asking people to do more with less money and to live longer with less security. Wages haven’t risen in forty years, even as the costs of health care, tuition, and housing have soared. The middle class is living paycheck to paycheck.
We must speak truth about our mass incarceration crisis—that we put more people in prison than any country on earth, for no good reason. We must speak truth about police brutality, about racial bias, about the killing of unarmed black men. We must speak truth about pharmaceutical companies that pushed addictive opioids on unsuspecting communities, and payday lenders and for-profit colleges that have leeched on to vulnerable Americans and overloaded them with debt. We must speak truth about greedy, predatory corporations that have turned deregulation, financial speculation, and climate denialism into creed. And I intend to do just that.
This book is not meant to be a policy platform, much less a fifty- point plan. Instead, it is a collection of ideas and viewpoints and stories, from my life and from the lives of the many people I’ve met along the way.
Just two more things to mention before we get started:
First, my name is pronounced “comma-la,” like the punctuation mark. It means “lotus flower,” which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom.
And second, I want you to know how personal this is for me. This is the story of my family. It is the story of my childhood. It is the story of the life I have built since then. You’ll meet my family and my friends, my colleagues and my team. I hope you will cherish them as I do and, through my telling, see that nothing I have ever accomplished could have been done on my own.