Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
When Washington first begins to attend school as a young boy in Malden, Virginia, he is stunned to see on the first day that all the other students have caps. Because his mother cannot afford to buy a cap, she makes one by sewing two pieces of material together. Many of the students ridiculed Washington’s cap, but Washington says that many of those students, so concerned with material things, were never able to buy a cap nicer than the one they wore at that time. Washington describes his pride that his mother refused to go into debt to keep up appearances.
Washington describes the toothbrush as one of the most important instruments of civilization. At the Tuskegee Institute, Washington implores his students to follow “the gospel of the toothbrush.” Students who do not use toothbrushes are not admitted to the college. The toothbrush is a symbol for cleanliness and dignity in one’s personal comportment. It is a sign of orderliness and pride in oneself.
Henry O. Tanner is a famous African-American painter who awes Washington in Paris. For Washington, he is a symbol of merit and how race can be transcended by achievement. Washington says that when people looks at one of Tanner’s paintings, they do not first ask if he is a black man. The belief in merit is a crucial aspect of Washington’s social program for racial uplift.