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
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.”