By Oscar H. Blayton
“The kitchen don’t lie” was a saying I heard often during my childhood.
In the 1950s in my part of Virginia, Saturday evenings saw a lot of African American sisters finish washing the dinner dishes and place a hot comb on top of the stove and begin to “do hair,” getting ready for Sunday service.
This weekly ritual gave rise to the term “the kitchen” when referring to those hairs at the nape of the neck that were too short to straighten with a hot comb. This label also was used in the practice of gauging the natural texture of a Black woman’s hair by looking at her “kitchen.”
The tendency of African Americans to straighten their hair was not only a trace contaminant from the overall racist culture of America, but also a symptom of intra-racism within the Black community. Whether it was an act of assimilation or submission, straightening Black folks’ hair in 1950s America was undeniably an attempt to make it look more like white folks’ hair.
Centuries of indoctrination had ingrained into the minds of white and Black Americans that any aspect of Africanness was negative. Skin color, hair texture and phenotypes of noses and lips of the sons and daughters of Africa were coded into the American psyche as evidence of inferiority. But this dogma is based upon lies formulated with a mixture of European xenophobia, ignorance and a need to place a veneer of civilization over the barbaric practice of chattel slavery. It was not until the 1960s that Black folks began to fully embrace who we are as an African people. This awareness began to manifest itself in the Black-sounding names of the newborn, the arrival of the dashiki as a fashion statement and the Afro hairstyle in all its kinky glory.
It was with difficulty, however, that Americans of all races were able to see through the veil of prejudice created over the span of generations. Some Black folks never were able to completely free themselves from the socialized burden of self-denigration. My own mother, who was extremely proud of the assertiveness of the Black Panthers, viewed their appearance as a shortcoming and wished “they would do something about their hair.”
Through hundreds of years of social engineering, white supremacy has convinced western civilization that there is merit to whiteness. As people today continue to struggle with white supremacy, there needs to be a realization that the mindset that underpins it is the belief that physical appearance is indicative of a person’s ability and value as a human. One clear example of this type of social engineering is the way Ancient Egyptians are presented, both by many Europeans and by some Egyptians themselves.
Two decades ago, I visited the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo with a study group led by the late Dr. Asa G. Hilliard III, a professor of educational psychology. Prior to our museum tour, Professor Hilliard, who was also a respected authority on Eurocentric perspectives on the study of Ancient Egypt, suggested that we view the mummy of Queen Tiye while there.
Queen Tiye lived more than 3,000 years ago and was the mother of the famous pharaoh Akhenaten and the grandmother of the even more famous pharaoh Tutankhamun. But the point that Dr. Hilliard wanted to make was that Queen Tiye was undeniably African. “Look at her kitchen,” he instructed us. “The kitchen doesn’t lie.”
As one writer has put it, “Hair that takes root and grows in our kitchens is the nappiest, curliest, kinkiest and the most resistant to change.
“… The kitchen was permanent, irredeemable, invincible kink. Unassimilably African. No matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, nothing could de-kink a person’s kitchen.”
Following Professor Hilliard’s advice, we all made our way to Queen Tiye’s mummy as we roamed the museum. And to the surprise of none, at the nape of her neck were tight, “invincible” kinks of hair.
Unfortunately, this truth about the Africanness of Queen Tiye does not fit the narrative of world history that white supremacy wants to advance. The preferred narrative of white supremists was evidenced by the way many artifacts were displayed in the museum. Representations of individuals with the lightest skin were placed in the high-traffic areas, even if they were merely servants or scribes. On the other hand, representations of Black pharaohs, regardless of how important and powerful they were, were located far from the most popular and most visited areas of the museum.
Members of our group questioned the guides about the arrangement that centered servants with light skin while Black pharaohs were almost hidden away. Their answer was telling. The guides informed us that most visitors to the museum were Europeans and they were interested in seeing people who looked like them. It was feared that prominently displaying dark people of power in Ancient Egypt would discourage Europeans from visiting. And fewer European visitors meant less revenue for the museum, they said.
In April 2021, Egypt moved 22 mummies, including that of Queen Tiye, from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. These mummies were paraded in specially built vehicles through the streets of Cairo in a grand procession with great fanfare enroute to their new home. One of the most odd and interesting aspects of this parade was the attention given to and written about Queen Tiye’s hair. But instead of describing the Africanness of her hair that I had witnessed, more than one writer described it quite differently. Egypt Today magazine even described it as “her luscious curly locks.”
White supremacy is a toxic virus that has been spread globally and maintained by a network of untruths about the rest of humanity. There are as many instances of the propagation of these untruths as there are moments in history. The appropriation of the achievements of other cultures and the erasure of their attainments has led to the intentional obscuring of historical facts in order to rewrite history to support the notion of white supremacy.
White supremacists do not want the world to know that Black people ruled in royal palaces and made great contributions to the advancements of civilization. But we must always push back hard against these attempts to denigrate people of the African Diaspora because “The Kitchen Don’t Lie.”