Throughout essay “In the Kitchen,” Henry Louis Gates Junior recalls a time when he and his friends and family constantly tried to straighten their African American “kinky” hair. They did this to try to fit in with white people. The writer is using his personal experience as an African American straightening his hair to show how black people felt about assimilating into white society. It was very difficult for blacks to fit in with white people but he remembers how this difficult time brought the black community together.
The writer starts off the essay in the kitchen of his own house with his mother straightening her friends’ hair with what they call a “hot comb” (323). The writer starts in the kitchen to introduce another meaning for the word. “The kitchen” was not just the room in which the writer’s mother would do hair; it was also a term use to describe the especially “kinky” bit of hair at the base of one’s neck (324). Many black wanted to have hair that looked more like a white person’s hair and Gates admits that he also tried straightening out the kinks in his hair with different types of greases and waxes, and wearing do-rags.
He said “[he] used to try everything, short of getting a process,” which was a way to chemically straighten one’s hair (326). Most black people used these tedious methods rather than getting a process because it was expensive. The writer emphasizes how hard blacks tried to have hair like the white people to represent black assimilation into white society. The “kitchen” in the back of their head that is nearly impossible to make straight hints that black could never really be a part of white society.
His mother was the one who did everyone’s hair. This shows that she was very in favor of assimilation. When Gates admitted to trying different ways, he hints that he wanted to change too: However he refers to an incident when he is older and his mother checked his own daughter’s head for the “kitchen” and he yells at her. He said he did not want her to do that because he did not like the politics of it. This hints that he did not like how different blacks tried to be.
He does, however, check his daughter’s head himself for that extra kinky bit of hair, reflecting his own up-bringing. Gates also writes about a time when he was at his uncle’s house to watch television. While they were all watching, they saw Nat King Cole, a famous singer with “patent-leather hair” (328). His hair was processed, but not to the point where it looked completely like white peoples’ hair. It still looked somewhat natural. Back then, it was rare for an African American to be seen on television as Cole was.
This shows the slow transition of blacks becoming accepted into white society. While Gates writes about his family was watching Cole on television it shows the togetherness of that time of trying to fit in with the whites. Doing everyone’s hair in the kitchen also shows how the black community was brought together at this time. The writer misses this later in life as one can tell by how he writes about checking his own daughter’s hair for the kitchen. The writer also refers to an incident where he is sitting in an Arab restaurant listening to the radio.
He writes about how he almost cried as the song “Fly Me to the Moon” by Nat King Cole came on. This nostalgic memory hints that he liked how the blacks all tried to fit in with the whites together. Gates different personal experiences help the reader to feel how he felt during the time of black assimilation into white society as well as how he feels now that black identity has changed. He wants the reader to know how racial identity has changed in America and how the process of assimilating helped bring blacks as a community together.