To say a significant number of Jamaicans are overjoyed that Sen. Kamala Harris is the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential candidate is an understatement.
Many Jamaicans at home and abroad have expressed excitement and approval in the news media, on social media and in their communities. But, perhaps, only a few can claim to be more elated than Dr. Malaika Witter Hewitt, an otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon, who is a partner at ENT of Georgia, in Atlanta.
The two share a similar past, being American-born children of highly educated immigrants from Jamaica—and in Harris’ case, also from India. Both have been rooted in the importance of education and academic distinction and have excelled in their chosen fields.
Additionally, their families shared a close relationship when Witter Hewitt was just a baby and Harris and her sister Maya were bright-eyed little girls with big hearts—as Witter Hewitt’s many childhood photos show.
The pictures were snapshots of a story she wanted to learn more about. Photos of her as a toddler—at Disney, at her second birthday party, at home—being doted on by these older girls, Kamala and Maya. Specifically, she wondered what happened to them and whether their paths would cross again.
“It’s like I loved them through the pictures. This 4-year-old and 7-year-old carrying this 2-year-old on their hips like a dolly. I just remembered that these were two little girls that were special in our lives,” Witter Hewitt says.
Their relationship began when she was a baby. At the time, Harris’ father, Donald Harris, was a young associate professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Witter Hewitt’s father, Michael Witter, was a graduate student under the professor’s tutelage. Witter later became a celebrated economist in the Caribbean and headed the department of economics for several years at the University of the West Indies, Mona.
The families grew close, as the children played often in the Escondido Village family student housing at Stanford University. The relationship between their fathers was mainly professional, but as families with similar experiences, they enjoyed the bonding among the children. Witter Hewitt’s mother, Maria Nicholas, made Afghan shirts for the Harris girls, and Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, made baby Malaika her favorite blanket—cherished to this day.
“We spent a lot of time together,” Witter Hewitt says, reminiscing.
But this relationship was short-lived. “When my father’s thesis was completed, he returned to Jamaica, and around the same time Kamala moved to Canada [with her mother].” They eventually lost touch over the years.
But growing up, Witter Hewitt says she had always been enamored with the photos—piecing together this component of her past.
When Harris’ career took a very public turn during her run for district attorney of San Francisco, Witter Hewitt realized that the older sister from her photos, Kamala, had become a public figure.
“It was big news in the Bay Area that a Black woman was running for district attorney,” Witter Hewitt says. At that time, however, she did not reach out to Harris, “but I observed her through the media,” she recalls.
Harris later also won the election for attorney general of California in 2010 and was reelected in 2014.
One evening when Harris was speaking at a BET women’s event in Miami during her senatorial campaign, Witter Hewitt’s cousin, Talitha Watkins, walked up to Harris and introduced herself as “Malaika’s cousin.”
Watkins, a motion picture talent agent in Los Angeles, told Witter Hewitt that when she mentioned her name, “Kamala’s eyes lit up and she said, ‘What! Can I have her number? I want to call her!’”
“I was tickled pink,” recalls Witter Hewitt. Watkins had given her number to Harris’ chief of staff and she was expecting a call.
“When the email came through with an invitation for one of Harris’ campaign events, I knew she would call around that time.”
The call came soon after. “I didn’t really remember her, but I felt such a connection because I had formed these memories through the photos and the stories,” says Witter Hewitt. “It was nice to actually talk to her, knowing that she was the same person that I reminisced in the pictures all the time.”
“One day when she was running for the U.S. Senate, she called me in Atlanta and invited me to one of her events.” Witter Hewitt wasn’t able to make it.
But, in the fall of 2019, when Harris was back in Atlanta at a fundraiser for her presidential campaign, the two finally got to see each other in person—for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime. A photo of that meeting captured their enthusiasm.
“She is one of those people who never forgets her people, her friends and connections from the past. She is just so loyal to the people in her life,” says Witter Hewitt.
A strong supporter and fierce defender of Harris, Witter Hewitt says she is “authentic” and “not superficial.”
In public life, many have seen the tough side of Sen. Harris, most evident in her no-nonsense questioning of then U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and U.S. Attorney General William Barr on his handling of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and report. In the Democratic presidential debates, she famously called out Joe Biden for policies she believed disadvantaged Black people including herself—specifically his stance on busing.
Witter Hewitt says of the debate-stage attack, “That source of conflict was why he chose her…You want to have that other opinion, that other perspective, from the last person in the room.”
Biden had “a lot of really good options,” she says, but chose Harris, 55, because she “brings so much more to the table to lead on day one.” Biden will be the oldest president to take office, at 78 years old, if he wins in November. “If anything should happen to Joe, she would be ready to pick up the baton and run with it,” Witter Hewitt says.
Equally important, says Witter-Hewitt, “She doesn’t let bullies scare her. She’s resilient, she won’t back down from a challenge … and she has the ability to campaign and win.”
But not everyone is gung-ho about the Harris pick. Some people think she’s too ambitious and others who question her Jamaican heritage and her “legitimacy” as a Black American.
For the naysayers, Witter Hewitt believes they are wrong. “Anybody that would say a woman is too ambitious, wouldn’t want to see a woman in leadership. … The implication here is that she is trying to reach a level above her qualifications and capabilities. It’s an archaic, backward thing to say.”
As for Harris’ connection to her Jamaican heritage, Witter Hewitt says she “definitely embraces it.” Harris has spent time in Jamaica, getting to know her father’s side of the family and enjoying the island. Like many children of immigrants raised in the U.S., Harris also learned and connected to her culture through the diaspora. “When she got to D.C., she was able to reconnect with her Caribbean culture—she’s enamored with it, she’s proud of it.”
Among some of Harris’ most vocal critics are the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS), who firmly believes she is not one of them because her parents are immigrants. “She’s American and she’s Black,” says Witter Hewitt, who thinks having these kinds of divisions among the subgroups of the African diaspora is counterproductive.
She was also quick to point out that Harris’ immigrant parents were active in the civil rights protests of the 60s and 70s and raised their children to work towards equality.
“From the time she was a little girl, she was taught to fight for what is right,” Witter Hewitt says.