Excerpted from Honky by Dalton Conley. Copyright © 2001 by Dalton Conley. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
A: I have a bit of the mad scientist in me as a professor. I like to do experiments and mess with my students' minds. The experiment I would really love to do is to take twins and raise one in the inner city and one in the rich suburbs. It would be even better if I could have quadruplets and make two black and two white but otherwise identical. I would take one black and one white and raise them in the inner city raise the other two in the wealthy burbs. This experiment would put sociology out of business for good. Then we would know, once and for all, the effects of nature and nurture. The effects of race and class. Short of my fantasy experiment, however, I thought that my own childhood was sort of like a natural experiment--raising a white, middle class kid in a minority, inner city environment with no money. You can really see what the effects of race and class are beyond the obvious differences of money and place when you compare my life course to those with whom I grew up.
I think that all professors are studying themselves in one way or another. I don't know how this works for, say, mathematicians or astronomers, but for sociologists for sure. I had written a really dry academic book on racial inequality and I had also written a coming of age novel that is still sitting in my drawer at home. The best scenes in the novel were the ones that were true--about an awkward white kid in a community of color. One day driving in San Francisco I heard Frank McCourt, author of the memoir Angela's Ashes and an English teacher from my high school, on the radio and it just struck me. Why am I doing only highly technical writing on race on the one hand and writing fiction for myself on the other? Why don't I tell my story as a nonfiction narrative with some sociological insight, combining, hopefully, the best of both worlds? Why not memoir? So what if I was under 30 at the time--that would just mean that my memory was fresher than it would be at the end of my life.
Q: One of the most remarkable accomplishments of Honky is that you are able to convey the thoughts and ideas of a very young boy. Was the conversational and casual tone of the book an enjoyable break from your academic work?
A: I never find writing enjoyable. It's always a struggle that I want to get over with. I think that's why my books tend to be short. I'm not in love with prose for prose's sake. And it's just too psychologically demanding to write, especially about yourself in a highly personal manner. So I think it was much harder to write than my academic work. But, on the other hand, I do certainly enjoy reading Honky a lot more than my academic writing. I think I'll continue to do both types.
Q: How many titles did you go through before settling on Honky? How do most readers respond to the title?
A: Zero. I knew it was the one. I wanted a provocative title that jumped off the cover, but I now regret the choice to a certain extent since I think it conveys the wrong image of the book. I was remarkably accepted as a white kid in a poor minority community. If it were the other way around, if I were a poor African American kid who grew up in a white working class neighborhood, I can't imagine how tough that would be. How little I would be accepted. We've all heard stories in the media about cases like this. So I think Honky is a misnomer, but I still like the sound of the word itself.
Q: What was your family's reaction to seeing the way that they are portrayed in Honky?
A: My father still quotes the book where I mention how he rubs the scar tissue on his face as he punches the numbers on his calculator as he handicaps the racing form. But otherwise, I think they are okay with how it turned out. I made sure not to show them any text before the book came out. I did ask questions to verify memories, etc. but I didn't want the book written by committee. My mother and sister write so they can have their own say, their revenge.
Q: Have your heard from any childhood friends since the book's publication?
A: A couple have contacted me to ask, "Hey, why wasn't I in the book, man?" But the most important contact I have had has been with Jerome, my friend who is shot and paralyzed in the book and to whom the book is dedicated. I had not heard from him since he had moved out of New York. One day during a radio interview a listener recognized who I was talking about and called in. She got us back in touch and it was certainly the right Jerome. We've talked several times and I am looking forward to seeing him in person again after so many years.
Q: When was the last time that you visited Masaryk, the housing complex where you grew up? How has the area changed during the last twenty years?
A: I go down there every so often since it is actually not that far from where I live now. It has changed incredibly. The school where I watched all the other kids get beaten and where one child got castrated is now luxury apartment buildings. Everything is nicer and neater. Crime is way down from when I was there. It's really encouraging to see how much the neighborhood has improved. But it is also worrisome to see how gentrification may be starting to push a lot of the families that were there for generations out of the neighborhood.
Q: You have been talking to high school and college students about the ways that race and class-consciousness is something that is learned. Are kids responsive to what you have to say?
A: The kids that are outsiders in some way are very responsive. They get it immediately. They are sort of like natural born sociologists on account of being minorities themselves of some sort--racially, ethnically, sexually, or what have you. The kids who are white and middle class can sometimes get hostile. No one who has a cushy life--including myself--wants to see that cushy life as a result of any force that is not their own (or their family's) hard work and ability. When I show them all the advantages that I had--many of which resonate very directly--like getting in trouble and not having charges filed when I burned down my friend's apartment, they start to think of examples from their own lives. It's an uncomfortable feeling.
Q: You recently spoke to the entire staff of MTV about your books. What was that like?
A: Quite exciting I have to admit. I was probably the most giddy for that talk compared to all my other appearances. Interestingly, it was one of the most racially balanced groups I ever spoke to and the youngest--maybe that portends well for the future of race and popular culture.
Q: In what ways have images of race and class in the media changed since your childhood?
A: Now every kid in every suburb wants to be "ghetto." I know that overall-American culture has always been much more strongly influenced by African American culture than most of us would realize or maybe admit, but I think this fact has become much more explicit and out there today with the diffusion of hip hop culture to every mall than it was in the past when--say--Elvis was copying and profiting from black musical traditions. Still, minorities continue to be underrepresented in big media outlets, but maybe with cable and the internet that matters less since niche marketing is much more prevalent.
Q: Honky is a word that we don't hear anymore. Why is that?
A: I think that words lose their impact after a while. Particularly when it is a derogatory term for a group with the most power and privilege. Neologisms keep having to be invented in the efforts for an oppressed group to insult the dominant group, but they fall flat. They don't have the same power as say, the n-word going the other direction.
Think about the proper terms for African Americans that we have used over the course of the 20th century, starting with colored, then to black, then to Afro-Americans in the 1970s, then back to black and now, African American and occasionally to "people of color." The names keep changing out of hope that a new word for race will mean new race relations, but the words are really window dressing. As long as the underlying power inequalities are still in place, we will keep changing words since the old ones will get too tainted by the continuing inequities. What we really need to change is the underlying relations of wealth and power and privilege.
1) Dalton Conley begins by asserting that he is "not your typical middle-class white male," and that his childhood was like "a social science experiment" [p. xiii]. What is the value of such an experiment? How much do you think Conley's parents' decision to live in the projects was a matter of choice and how much was it out of their control? How much choice does any family ultimately have--black or white? How does Conley's unique experience shed light on the values and assumptions of more conventional middle-class whites?
2) Conley says that "race and class are nothing more than a set of stories we tell ourselves to get through the world, to organize our reality" [p. xiv]. What does it mean to treat race and class as subjective rather than fixed and objective categories? In what ways does Honky bear out Conley's thesis? How do his experiences help him understand the tangled issues of race and class?
3) Impatient for his own sister to be born, Conley temporarily kidnaps a black baby. What does this action suggest about how young children perceive racial difference? What does it suggest about how racist attitudes are acquired?
4) Conley vividly describes the poverty and violence of the projects in which he grows up, a place where he is ashamed to bring his white friend Michael and where his own life has been threatened. And yet when the family decides to move, he is reluctant to leave Avenue D behind. Why is he so attached to that world? What are the positive qualities of his neighborhood and the people who live there?
5) In the Author's Note, Conley argues that while his book lacks the scientific rigor of an ethnography, it compensates with the depth of insight that comes from living in a social setting, "rather than swooping in from afar to gather data for a time before going home to dinner and one's real life" [p. 205]. What are the most significant insights that Honky offers? In what ways is Conley's firsthand experience more valuable than scientific data?
6) After Conley accidentally sets fire to his friend Raphael's apartment, he realizes, "Had the fire not been in Chelsea but down the street from our house in one of the row tenements that lined Avenue D--or had I been of a different skin tone--the whole matter might not have been settled so casually" [p. 181]. What other experiences make Conley aware of his privileged status as a white person? What effect do these revelations have on him?
7) What coping strategy does Conley employ after the shooting of his best friend, Jerome? What does he try to achieve through this behavior? What does it suggest about the effects of living in a violent environment on young children?
8) When Conley wonders about why his life has turned out as it has, he writes, "I can believe what I want to believe. This is the privilege of the middle and upper classes in America--the right to make up the reasons things turn out the way they do, to construct our own narratives rather than having the media and society do it for us" [p. 110]. In what ways do the media and society construct the narratives of blacks and other minorities in America? What are those narratives? What purposes do they serve for the dominant ethnic group? What effects do they have on minorities?
9) What does Conley discover about race and class when he changes from P.S. 4 in the projects to P.S. 41 in the West Village? What does he learn about the different codes for fitting in and being an outcast? How does his experience away from the projects allow him to see them, and his own minority position within them, more clearly? Do you find fault with Conley's parents for lying about their address to the school board? Why or why not?
10) In one of the strange ironies of race relations that Honky explores, Conley longs to be called "nigga" by his black friends. "Every time [Marcus] applied the word to me I relished the sound of it, as I might savor an exotic delicacy"[p. 123]. What does being called "nigga" signify to Conley? What does it mean that he can't say the word himself? What might account for the transformation of this hateful racial epithet into a term of approbation among blacks?
11) Honky ends abruptly when Jerome asks the Conley family why they have moved to Chelsea. Mrs. Conley replies, "Because of you." What does she mean?
12) In what ways does Honky illustrate, rather than merely assert, the privileges that even poor whites like the Conleys can enjoy in the United States? Why is Conley, unlike most of his neighbors in the projects, able to get a first-rate education and a prestigious job?
13) What role, if any, does the background and education level of Mr. and Mrs. Conley play in their ability to secure advantages for their family? Is skin color the only factor that influences a person's socioeconomic status?
14) Honky is about race and class, but it is also a memoir about family and about growing up. How do Conley's mother and father shape his character? In what ways do his friends influence him? What about his personality made his time in the Lower East Side more difficult than it needed to be? Is it surprising, given his childhood, that Conley should end up as a sociologist and writer? What qualities of Conley's personality suit him to this choice?
15) Although Honky is concerned with telling a story rather than making an argument, what larger conclusions might be drawn from the book? Based on the experiences that Conley relates, what proposals could be made for improving the lives of inner-city minorities?