In the Kitchen by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cultural Identity

Categories: Cultural Identity

“In the Kitchen” by Henry Louis Gates, Junior, is an autobiography which uses many writing techniques to create the identity of black lives living in America during the 1950s and 60s. Both the spoken and figurative languages being used by Gates constructively builds a persona which shows the cultural identity of a black person through the description of hair. The individual identity portrayed throughout the text “In the Kitchen”, is created from cultural identity through his personal reflections of growing up in a coloured community.

Also, how people of colour have had their cultural identity dictated by white supremacy, the unnatural and historically constructed cultural belief that white people are more superior than people of colour. Gates states “hair like white hair was “good”,” (43) suggesting that people of colour have inferior hair. In the text by Gates “In the Kitchen,” the writer constructs identity by using tone, language such as idiom, and metaphoric elements of writing.

Throughout the text “In the Kitchen” a feature of writing that can come to the attention of the reader almost immediately is the nostalgic tone which is being portrayed by Gates through a first-person narrative.

The recognition and remembrance of past events Gates is personally reflecting upon, produce an emotionally warm, yet sad feeling for the reader, Gates uses the first-person narrative to fully grasp the readers’ emotions with a personal nostalgic tone. Gates has used this tone throughout the entirety of the text. Gates told the reader he “had forgotten” about his past and memories that followed “until the day in 1971” when Gates himself was “sitting in an Arab restaurant” feeling two million miles away from home” Gates instantly heard the song “Fly Me to the Moon” by Nat King Cole” (48, 49) come onto the radio where he was dining.

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Gates memories instantaneously came flooding back to him. Gates then lets the audience know he was deeply saddened by these memories as he could “barley” hold back the tears” (49) that these past events were abruptly causing. The use of this quote gives the audience an inside view of Gates nostalgic tone expressing sadness. Gates enforces the use of the first-person narrative by the use of “I” and “we”. Gates tells the reader “I would always watch Mama” (40). By Gates using his reflections with the first-person narrative it brings the realistic nostalgic tone to life and allows the audience to access Gates personal memories and makes it more personal and emotional for the reader. By writing in first-person, Gates lets the reader get an inside perspective of his thoughts “I definitely wanted straight hair” (44) and lets the reader get a sense of his own cultural identity through personal nostalgia, this quote also suggests that an extent of his identity is influenced by white supremacist thinking. Gates constructs the idea that his identity is being shaped from white supremacy through a nostalgic tone when stating, he always “wanted straight hair” (44) telling the reader that hair was a significant influence in the cultural identity of a black person.

The use of idiom and language are also prominent features of writing throughout the text. Gates brings out elements of his cultural identity to the audience through the constant use of idiom when referring to his “Mama” (40). By Gates using this black slang term it indicates to the reader Gates black cultural identity and upbringing. The reader is given evidence of his upbringing within a coloured community by quoting is “Pops” (44) in a scenario where Gates got himself into trouble when “messing” (44) with his Grandfathers “straight hair” (44). Gates Grandfather then proceeded to respond to the action by naming Gates a pejorative term “little nigger” (44). This example of a black idiom lets the audience confirm the ethnicity of Gates and that the reader is in fact reading about the life of a coloured person. Although Gates gives many slanderous terms throughout the text, he also makes sure the reader is also aware of his education through the use of sophisticated language such as “Mother”. Which again is influenced by a white supremacist way of thinking, suggesting that Gates education and a part of his identity has been clouded by the white gaze and what is deemed to be a more advanced way of speaking and writing.

The most significant piece of writing in the text is the metaphor Gates has used when talking about the kitchen. Yes he identifies the kitchen as a key place in the house where traditionally women would spend a lot of their time not only cooking, it was also a place where “Mama used to do hair”. Gates mother would heat her metal hair tools up over the “gas stove”(40) Gates states his “Mama had only a few “clients” whose heads she “did”” mainly for the pleasure of doing hair as Gates Mother enjoyed the “process” (41). The significands of the title “In the Kitchen” becomes apparent to the audience when Gates describes the metaphor in great detail to the reader, “Now, the kitchen was” the room where Mama did hair” But the word has another meaning” this meaning that Gates is about to mention is very important part of the Black American culture, it the very thing that has “resisted assimilation” meaning it could never be changed, “the kitchen” could not be adjusted to suit the culture of the white supremacy. “[N]either God nor woman” could straighten the kitchen. [It] was permanent”. The “Kitchen” that Gates is “speaking of now, is the very kinky bit of hair at the back of the head” (42). The use of this highly descriptive metaphor lets the reader get an inside view of the Black American culture but also shows the reader how affected the coloured community was in terms of the white gaze and how a tiny piece of hair at the back of their necks was so disliked by people of colour and they tried to hide that part of their identity and the lengths that people of colour had to go through to suit the white supremacist way of think about what “good and bad hair” was. “Good hair was straight. Bad hair was kinky” (43). When Gates talks about the straightness of hair, he makes sure to specify it does not “literally” mean “straight” (44) “Black people call that “stringy” hair.” What people of colour mean by saying “straight” hair, it “just means not kinky” (45). When reading the metaphor about the kitchen, a feeling of warm nostalgia comes through to the audience suggesting that Gates enjoyed telling the history of the kitchen as a part of his identity that could not be changed in anyway.

As the audience can see throughout the text, much of the cultural identity of Gates himself, is largely dictated by the racism from white people through the negative belief that people of colour were less superior to that of themselves and how white supremacy had a an unnecessary impact of the physical and mental emotions of black lives and that their hair was discriminated upon because it was “kinky” (45). The constant use of a nostalgia Gates give the reader an emotional insight to the life of a black person between the 1950s and 60s and what was deemed acceptable. Along with the significands of the word kitchen being metaphorically used to describe a place within a home as well as a piece of hair, and how constructively Gates has used writing techniques to give the reader a perspective on what it is like growing up in a black community.

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In the Kitchen by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cultural Identity. (2019, Dec 14). Retrieved from

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