Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The conk, a popular hairstyle that involves straightening out nappy hair with a host of caustic chemicals, is an emblem of black self-denial. Blacks conk their hair in an attempt to look more like white people, and their willingness to alter a feature of their body violently underscores how much they want to conceal their blackness. The conk is popular with rich and poor blacks alike, showing how blacks of all classes experience self-hatred. Though Malcolm conks his hair when he first moves to Boston, in prison he realizes how much mental energy he has been wasting on trying to conform to an impossible image of white good looks. Later, as an orator canvassing on the street, Malcolm criticizes American blacks for trying to change their African features. He sees the conk as one item in a long list, including faith in Christian religion and obsession with white women, of counterproductive black imitations of white culture.
The wristwatch, suitcase, and eyeglasses that Malcolm purchases upon his release from prison symbolize his commitment as a free man to a career of efficient work, frequent travel to spread the message of Islam, and constant study and reflection. The watch represents Malcolm’s industriousness, as he becomes extremely conscious of his daily schedule and organizes his life carefully. The suitcase, which Malcolm begins using in his professional life, represents Malcolm’s sacrifice of his personal life to his aspirations in the Nation of Islam. The glasses represent his ongoing commitment to the further development of his views as well as his broad vision for the future of black people in America.
More main ideas from The Autobiography of Malcolm X