Kamala Harris’ lifelong friend shares their bond in book ‘Friends From the Beginning’
EXCLUSIVE: Stacey Johnson-Batiste tells theGrio that Vice President Harris "was always a leader."
No one knows you like a childhood best friend. Vice President Kamala Harris’ bestie Stacey Johnson-Batiste has written a candid tribute to her friend that traces the origins and evolution of two women and a friendship still going strong after five decades.
Now, politicians are no strangers to scrutiny, and Black women in the public eye arguably get far more than their fair share. The 2020 election proved that Harris is no exception. She hasn’t had an easy time in the press and with some members of the Black communities who have questioned her roots, her values, and her commitment alongside her record.
Johnson-Batiste’s book, Friends from the Beginning: The Berkeley Village That Raised Kamala and Me, provides what almost no one else can: the inside perspective from someone who knew her from the beginning.
The story begins in Berkeley, California. Stacey Johnson met Kamala Harris when she was 5 years old and the woman who would break barriers to become America’s first woman, first Black, and first Asian vice president was only four, just on the cusp of turning five. The girls met through their mothers and then attended a progressive, multiracial kindergarten together, Berkwood Hedge School, where both thrived. A sense of community, caring, and love was cultivated in them in their Berkeley days. It pervades this book, which is in large parts a heartfelt testament to the importance and sustaining power of friendship.
Beyond that, the thing that may surprise skeptics is that with this vice president, what you see is what you get. This is the book’s most prominent theme: Kamala Harris is who she always has been. Feisty debate stage Kamala is the Kamala that showed up in kindergarten. In fact, that continuity of character and spirit is what inspired the book, which is organized around the twelve core values that shaped both Kamala and Stacey as girls and remain with them to this day.
Guiding principles like passion and purpose remain consistent watchwords in the vice president’s communication and action, to the underlying grit and determination that came from their ambitious and loving mothers and propel them forward come what may.
When she attended the inauguration, Johnson-Batiste found that despite the grandeur of the setting, the atmosphere that surrounded the vice president, the one she helped to carefully craft and cultivate, struck her as the same as it had been at previous milestones in her friend’s career. She’s been there for every one.
That made Johnson-Batiste contemplate the commonalities between those moments and childhood, and how the girl she knew became the woman on the world stage. And for the author, that spoke to the values and priorities Harris carries with her.
This became the book’s foundation and its driving principle: “The more I thought about the characteristics I admire most in my friend, whom I had just seen make history, the more I realized that they were the same ones that had drawn me to her throughout our childhood and had sustained our friendship. From the beginning.”
theGrio recently had the privilege of reading an early copy of the book and of speaking with Johnson-Batiste one on one. Here’s what we learned.
[The transcript has been edited for brevity]
theGrio: The book’s main inspiration came the night of the inauguration?
Stacey Johnson-Batiste: If you just picture, I was standing with that massive Lincoln statue to my right, the reflection pool to my left, Kamala was right in front of me, John Legend was over to my right. The reflection pool was lined with 400 lanterns, each representing at that time 1,000 of our fellow Americans who had died of COVID. It was very, very emotional, overwhelming, and I could just almost envision, like in the heavens hovering above, her mother Shyamala [Gopalan], my father, Robert, our uncle Sherman, and our Aunt Mary, kind of looking down on all of this.
The inaugural ceremony, it just felt so familiar — the feeling, the vibe, the colorfulness [and] diversity…. There was a feeling even with a much much smaller crowd, a really good joyful feeling as it has been for each of her swearing-in ceremonies.
I thought I’m going to start to align these characteristics, these qualities that I’ve seen displayed in her throughout our childhood and teenage years and our 20s and 30s, and certainly throughout her career, mapping that back to those people that were influential and important to both of our lives … That was how I formulated the chapters and the thoughts behind the book.
theGrio: Let’s talk about how you met. Your mothers were friends first?
Johnson-Batiste: Absolutely. Now my mom doesn’t exactly remember how she met Shyamala. She assumes that she was introduced to her by Uncle Sherman and Aunt Mary … when they were both looking for a kindergarten to send their daughters … It seemed like we just became instant friends. Our mothers became very close, so we were together every day in school, but also sometimes after school, and on the weekends.
Our mothers would pile Kamala, Maya, and myself, either in my mom’s ’66 Mustang, and off we went, either to the park or to Fairyland or the Grand Lake Theater. etc. And we were always friends ever since.
theGrio: You wrote that Berkwood was where you first realized “Kamala has no time for bullies.” What happened?
Johnson-Batiste: Berkwood Hedge. Well, I mean she was always assertive, but she also loved to play with everyone. So this particular day at our school, which was big on arts and crafts, we had made a little piece of art. We had to mold it, put it in the oven for a few minutes and then let it sit outside. And this one boy, who shall remain nameless [She still remembers his name.] … had taken mine and threw it on the ground. And knowing me, I probably was shocked and my eyes filled up with tears, but Kamala stepped in front of me and said something to him, and he got mad enough to pick up either a rock or a piece of clay and hit her in the head.
Her mom had to come from work, take her to the hospital, she needed stitches! That just was a testament to the kind of person that she was and she has always been. She will stand up for the underdog and protect her friends and her family.
theGrio: I think a lot about how there’s often a gap between someone’s media image and their reality. What’s your reaction when Kamala’s identity, her Blackness gets challenged? And what would you say to people who aren’t sure that she’s one of them?
Johnson-Batiste: OK, well, she grew up Black. And her mother made a point of making sure that her daughters had a really good foundation of African American History and Culture. As well as their East Indian culture. So there was never any confusion, you know, that I could tell from that standpoint.
But in terms of the image personally versus you know, onstage or on camera, I really do see the same person. I think people want to make her out to be more complicated than that. But … she has a sense of humor. She is very smart and cares about people. She gets things done. And she keeps it real. She’s down to earth. So no, she’s really the same person.
theGrio: Were you surprised when she met Doug [Emhoff] and decided to take the plunge?
Johnson-Batiste: Oh, I was overjoyed. I mean, it still gives me chills, I was so happy. When she first told me about him, we were having dinner in San Francisco. And I could tell there was something different, something very, very special.
And when I met him, I could see it: he just adores her. That was clear. It seemed like he had a really, really kind heart. They were both attorneys, so they had that in common. Cole and Ella, his son and daughter, are just wonderful. You know, very, very sweet, kind, caring.
So I was so happy for her. And at the wedding, I had never seen her that happy. It gave me hope because I’ve been single … It was encouraging that you can find true love at any age or stage.
theGrio: What was the best moment you’ve witnessed in Kamala’s public life?
Johnson-Batiste: Well, first of all, it was extremely significant you know, being the first female and Black vice president of the United States. That’s hugely significant. But I also go all the way back to election night when she was running for San Francisco district attorney. I knew this was very, very special to her, very, important. That day, I had meetings in San Francisco and I drove practically non-stop, because I wanted to be there.
I think it was at that moment that I realized what the potential was, and I was so proud of her. And ever since then, I’ve seen her do what she said she’s gonna do and take care of business. And she has the same consideration and care about people and the environment and justice that she’s always had.
theGrio: Was that the moment you knew that Kamala was a leader?
Johnson-Batiste: I mean, she was always a leader, even when we were teenagers. I admired her. She had her own fashion style. She was determined to go to Howard. She was her own person early on. And people have always gravitated to her. But I think it was also at that moment during that San Francisco district attorney campaign when I realized how strong of a leader she was.
Friends from the Beginning: The Berkeley Village That Raised Kamala and Me is now available for purchase.
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