The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The “Conk” Symbol Icon

During Malcolm’s younger years in Boston and Harlem, he maintained a “conk” hairstyle, which was a way of chemically relaxing naturally kinky hair. The style was popular among African American men from the 1920s to the 1960s, despite the risk of chemical burns and the high amount of care necessary to maintain it. In his later years, as he reflects back on his youth and the culture of the “cool cats,” Malcolm no longer sees this as simply an aesthetic choice. Rather, the style is motivated by a deep sense of racial inferiority and adoration for everything white. Black men, he thinks, are so desperate to be like white men, who have better jobs, more wealth, and more rights than them, that they will undergo a painful procedure to have hair that looks like that of a white person. Once Malcolm reaches this conclusion, he sees the conk as a badge of shame; however, the person wearing it is usually unaware of their subconscious self-hatred. It is only after Malcolm converts to the Nation of Islam and gains confidence in himself as a black man that he understands the conk in this way. The conk therefore symbolizes both a racial hierarchy that puts whites above blacks and an unawareness by some African Americans of just how deep that racist ideology goes even within their own psychology.

The “Conk” Quotes in The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The The Autobiography of Malcolm X quotes below all refer to the symbol of The “Conk”. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race and Racism in America Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Ballantine Books edition of The Autobiography of Malcolm X published in 1992.
Chapter 3 Quotes

I spent the first month in town with my mouth hanging open. The sharp dressed young "cats" who hung on the corners and in the poolrooms, bars and restaurants, and who obviously didn't work anywhere, completely entranced me. I couldn't get over marveling at how their hair was straight and shiny like white men's hair; Ella told me this was called a "conk.”

Related Characters: Malcolm X (speaker), Ella Little
Related Symbols: The “Conk”
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

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The “Conk” Symbol Timeline in The Autobiography of Malcolm X

The timeline below shows where the symbol The “Conk” appears in The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3: “Homeboy”
Race and Racism in America Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
...all the cool cats who stand around in their fancy suits and with their hair “conked” (chemically relaxed to lie straight). He is overwhelmed by all the slang and gambling rackets... (full context)
Race and Racism in America Theme Icon
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...late into the night. He starts to grow his hair out so that he can “conk” it, and Shorty tells him to buy his first zoot suit (an especially baggy style... (full context)
Race and Racism in America Theme Icon
Class Theme Icon
Finally, Malcolm’s hair is long enough to be conked for the first time. He and Shorty go to the drugstore to buy the ingredients... (full context)
Race and Racism in America Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
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...get all of the relaxant out, dries him off, and shows him his brand new conk. Malcolm’s reddish hair now lies straight across his head. (full context)
Race and Racism in America Theme Icon
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Malcolm is in love with his new hair and vows to never go without a conk again. He reflects later that this was his first “step towards self-degradation,” as he attempted... (full context)
Chapter 4: Laura
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...zoot suit, which he chooses very carefully and purchases on credit. Then, with a fresh conk, he heads down to the Ballroom right as everyone starts to arrive. Heads are turning... (full context)
Epilogue: Alex Haley
Race and Racism in America Theme Icon
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...themselves up and not fall for the “white man’s tricks” by getting drunk or getting conks. The people love Malcolm, and he loves them back. All the while, no matter what... (full context)