The essay In the Kitchen by Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains through stories and images the importance of hairstyle and how hair can be connected to political, racial, and cultural traditions. It goes beyond just looking a certain way and can carry memories, views, and ideas that people connect with in their life during a specific time frame.
The emotions and stories that are told give the reader a personal connection with Henry Louis when he describes moments in his life growing and seeing his mom doing hair. “I liked the smell. Not the smell so much, I guess, as what the smell meant for the shape of my day. There was an intimate warmth in the women’s tones as they talked with my Mama, doing their hair.” He tells the audience these moments in his life to evoke pathos of smells and places that remind the reader of moments similar to this in their own memories of growing up. Most of these memories are not relatable because they have to do with African American hairstyle trends in the 1994, but the feeling of wanting to be accepted and “trendy” in society is one that every person can relate to. The pathos of being included and being influenced by trends is applicable to the reader.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. has ethos with being born in 1994 and living through the hairstyle trends of African American women and men. He shares what he knows and remembers from his past and shares it with the audience. “Nat King Cole was clean. I’ve had an ongoing argument with a Nigerian friend about Nat King Cole for twenty years now. Not about whether he could sing- any fool knows that he could- but about whether or not he was a handkerchief head for wearing that patent-leather process.” Henry Louis knows the background and information on how African Americans did their hairstyles and he shares his knowledge of these facts with the reader. He uses his ethos to carry the point across about the influence of hair in society and how it evokes memories and ideas by a simple glance.
The arrangement used starts off with the memories of Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a child watching his mom do hair. Then it develops into the different hair trends of the time for African Americans. He describes how these hairstyles are achieved and what products were used and then gives examples of famous people who had these hairstyles that influenced society. Henry Louis Gates Jr. ends the essay with a song by Nat King Cole playing on the radio later in his life and it brings back a rush of memories. “Fly me to the Moon by Nat King Cole played and in my mind’s eye I saw it: the King’s magnificent sleek black tiara. I managed, barely, to blink back the tears.” This flow of the essay was effective because you go through the segments of life from start to finish and are informed on why and how these hairstyles developed and why they were so important to the generation Henry Louis grew up in.
Gates uses numerous anecdotes to illustrate just how important having “good” hair was to the African American community when he grew up. He describes himself using a multitude of products to get his hair just right. To an outsider, it seems like too much effort to put into a single part of your physical appearance. Gates explains that this was a cultural phenomenon rather than his own personal obsession, saying, “Everybody I knew as a child wanted to have good hair. You could be as ugly as homemade sin dipped in misery and still be though attractive if you had good hair”. This humorous example effectively explains to outsiders why hair was such a central focus to young Gates. Logically, if hair was viewed as the main thing that made you attractive, you would spend a lot of time worrying about your hair.
Gates uses another anecdote to explain a somewhat darker aspect of this obsession with hair. He explains that “good” hair was straight and “bad” hair was kinky, even though kinky hair is natural in African Amercians. He then tells the story of how his mother would obsessively feel his little sister’s hair and sigh in relief when there was no kink. Young Gates criticized his mother because he knew that the kink was inevitable and that it had nothing to do with the baby’s worth, but admitted that he sometimes felt her hair for kink too. This illustrates how powerful this cultural phenomenon was. It even made parents ashamed of their own children’s natural hair. Gates provides this example to convince readers that the suppression of “bad” kinky hair was unnatural and bordered on unhealthy.
Gates does not completely condemn this phenomenon, however. He admits that Nat King Cole’s process fit him perfectly. This insinuates that Gates does not disapprove of African Americans wanting straight hair, but rather disapproves of the notion that only straight hair is “good”. This stance is effective because it can be critical of the harmful parts of the phenomenon while still appreciating the culture that rose out of it. This piece has criticism, but is still primarily a celebration of a distinctly African American culture of hair treatment. Gates’ stance implies that even as this period’s African Americans were being pressured to conform to a seemingly white standard of hair, they built on their own rich tradition while doing so. Gates paints this phenomenon not as a defeat, but as a triumph of the African American spirit. This relates to his metaphor of the “kitchen”, or the untamable kink at the nape of the neck. Though hair was being straightened, this process did not succeed in flattening the “kitchen” of African Amercian culture.
Gates writes in such a way that’s approachable for most any reader. He explains, in a casual and welcoming way, the processes of “taming” black hair and how it’s a social, communal ritual that connects him with his family. Speaking through fond memories, he sounds almost like a kind grandfather, the jovial sort of character who would likely be played by Morgan Freeman in a film. It’s a good choice of tone that makes readers feel more at home with Gates, which normalizes a process that might be a total culture shock for non-black readers. It embeds in the reader the sense of community that Gates feels, even if the reader has never had the same experiences.
After recollecting fond memories of his family, friends, and Nat King Cole, Gates remarks on the “kitchen” as a part of anatomy– the hair at the back of the neck that can never be straightened by any means. This is an interesting stylistic choice, as it catches the reader off guard placed right after a litany of pleasant memories of youth and community. Gates’ wordplay on “kitchen” serves as a launchpad for more communication and thought on the reader’s part– “kitchen” is presented as both a familiar, warm place and an implicit omen that true assimilation is never quite possible. Gates presents his own experiences and leaves much of the thinking on these concepts up to the reader. This is much more effective and leads readers to draw a conclusion rather than drawing it for them. This Socratic approach only bolsters Gates as a friendly, laid-back narrator who sees his audience as equals.
Finally, I’d like to share a video by teenage activist Amandla Stenberg on the topic of black hair. It’s a topic of continuing discourse, and has become more personal, political, and public since Gates originally published In the Kitchen. For context, Stenberg’s video is a direct response to the fashion industry and celebrities like Kylie Jenner using black hairstyles (cornrows, dreadlocks, etc.) for their visual appeal while ignoring their history and significance to black folks. Stenberg is extremely well-spoken and lauded as an activist, and I see her as a continuation of the same argument re-shaped for my generation.