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  • Honky
  • Written by Dalton Conley
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780375727757
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Honky

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

As recalled in Honky, Dalton Conley’s childhood has all of the classic elements of growing up in America. But the fact that he was one of the few white boys in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side makes Dalton’s childhood unique.

At the age of three, he couldn’t understand why the infant daughter of the black separatists next door couldn’t be his sister, so he kidnapped her. By the time he was a teenager, he realized that not even a parent’s devotion could protect his best friend from a stray bullet. Years after the privilege of being white and middle class allowed Conley to leave the projects, his entertaining memoir allows us to see how race and class impact us all. Perfectly pitched and daringly original, Honky is that rare book that entertains even as it informs.

Excerpt

As my mother tells it, the week before I kidnapped the black baby I broke free from her in the supermarket, ran to the back of the last aisle, and grabbed the manager's microphone. "I want a baby sister," I announced, my almost-three-year-old voice reverberating off ceiling-high stacks of canned Goya beans.

"I want a baby sister," I repeated, evidently intrigued by the fact that my own voice seemed to be coming from everywhere. Soon my mother's shopping cart was rattling across the floor of the refrigerated back row where all the meats were kept. I can envision the two long braids on either side of her head flapping maniacally, as if they were wings trying to lift her and the cart off the ground. She was, in fact, pregnant. She had explained to me what this meant a week earlier, and I had become fixated on it, asking each day how much longer it would be. My parents tolerated this first of my many obsessions, happy that at least I was not resentful and jealous, though they wondered why I so much wanted the baby to be a girl and not another something like myself.

"How old will I be when the baby's born?" I asked one day. The next morning I continued my questioning: "When I'm five, how old will the baby be?" Soon after that I started to worry about its sex: "When will we know it's a sister and not a brother?" Skin color never entered my line of questioning.

My parents did their best to engage my curiosity, each in their own way. While my father, Steve, used colored pens to handicap the Racing Form, he gave me some markers and told me to draw a picture of the baby. I rushed through this endeavor using only the black marker and produced something that looked like his sweat-smeared copy of the Form after a long day at the racetrack. Steve, a painter, had just gotten into a black-and-white phase himself and was touched by my colorless effort; he pinned it up on the wall above the dining room table, where it hung for years.

In contrast to my father, with his visual orientation, my mother, a writer, took a verbal approach. She instructed me to think of an adjective for each letter of the alphabet to describe how I would like my younger sibling to be. We only got through "a-door-bell," my word for adorable, and then to brown before I got exasperated and insisted that she tell me what the baby would be like--as if she knew and was holding out on me.

Finally, I could stand the wait no longer. About a week after the supermarket incident, I swiped a baby myself. While playing in our housing project's courtyard, I found an unattended stroller. In it was a toddler just a few months younger than me, with cornrows braided so tightly on her little head that they pulled the skin on her face tautly upward. I remember that she was smiling up at me, and I must have taken this as permission. I reached up to grab the handles of the carriage, pushed it across the shards of broken green and brown malt liquor bottles that littered the concrete, and proudly delivered it to my mother, who was sitting on a bench with a neighbor.

"I found my baby sister," I declared, jamming the stroller into her shin for emphasis.

"No you haven't," my mother replied, putting her hand over her open mouth. She turned to her neighbor on the splintered green bench. "Do you know where her mother is?"

The child's parents--leaders of the neighborhood black separatist organization--lived in our building, on our very floor. By now the baby was crying, and I was jumping up and down with excitement, laughing with delight at my success. But my laughter soon dissolved into tears, for my mother immediately seized the plastic handles of the stroller and returned it from where it came. She made a beeline across the concrete, over the black rubber tiles of the kiddie area and under the jungle gym, all the way to the other side of the playground, where a woman was pacing frantically back and forth, her Muslim head scarf flowing out behind her like a proud national flag. When my mother finally reached the woman she apologized repeatedly, explaining that she could certainly empathize with the experience, since I escaped from her sight several times a week. The woman said nothing, her silent glare through narrowed eyes a powerful statement in itself, while the baby and I went on screaming and crying a cacophonous chorus.

After the kidnapping, the separatist mother did not speak to us for a month, as if we had confirmed her worst suspicions about white people. Then, just as the springtime buds were starting to blossom, she talked to my mother in the elevator. "April is the cruelest month," she said, as if T. S. Eliot were code for something. Whenever my mother would tell this part of the story, her voice would soften and trail off. Only later did I figure out that she remembered it so vividly out of a sense of liberal, racial guilt--guilt over her surprise at hearing a black separatist recite English poetry.

"Yes, it is" my mother responded, wracking her brain as she tried to remember which poet had said that. She thought maybe it was Ezra Pound, the Nazi sympathizer, and that the woman was making a veiled expression of anti-Semitism. Then she quoted the poem back to the woman: "Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow . . ."

The woman didn't say anything else, continuing to stare at the numbers as they descended from twenty-one; she got off the elevator at the ground floor and smiled at my mother. At this point in the telling, my mother's voice would rise with the satisfaction that she and the woman had shared a moment, a literary bond. But later that night, well after midnight, the woman, her husband, and my ersatz baby sister were dragging, wheeling, and pushing all of their belongings across the hallway to the elevator in a caravan of suitcases, each one overstuffed and bulging, as pregnant with mystery as my mother was with my imminent sibling. The woman was screaming at her husband to hurry up, so loudly that she woke up several families. Parents poked their heads out of steel doorways, blinking as they peered into the fluorescent hallway. Finally my mother asked the woman to keep it down, since we were trying to sleep. I imagine that she asked sheepishly, cowed by her chronic white guilt.

"Noise?" the woman yelled back as she pushed a shopping cart full of overstuffed manila folders down the corridor. Her eyes were as wide with adrenaline as they had been narrowed with seething rage the month before. "The noise is your kid's Big Wheel going up and down, up and down the hallway all day. Don't tell me about noise." Despite her reaction, the din soon ebbed, and all that was left of the separatists was a quite literal paper trail that led back to their apartment, whose glossy, brown-painted door stood ajar. I don't need my mother's storytelling to recall the open door. An open door in that neighborhood was something strange and unusual. It usually meant something was seriously amiss--that a woman was fleeing an abusive husband, that a robbery or even a murder had taken place. For me, the open door came to have the same association with death that a hat on a bed does for many people.

Insomniac that she was, my mother stayed up and waited eagerly for the sound of the newspaper dropping outside our door. She savored her morning ritual, in which she brewed dark-roast Bustello-brand Puerto Rican coffee to accompany the Daily News. That morning my mother read in the paper that the separatist group had taken credit for a bomb planted at the Statue of Liberty the day before. The bomb had been defused, but it still caused a panic among the tourists. Just as she was reading that the FBI was searching for the members of the sepa-ratist group, the racket in the hallway started up again. She peeked out, and there, as if arriving on cue, were the investigators from the FBI, identified by the large yellow letters on the backs of their nylon jackets. Within an hour they, too, had cleared out, padlocking the family's door and pasting layer upon layer of tape over it, yellow strips with black writing that formed negatives of the jackets they had worn. The tape read CRIME SCENE, DO NOT ENTER--as if we had a choice. I was fascinated with this tape and peeled it off strip by strip when I played in the hallway. My mother saved some for my room, guessing correctly that I would like it after a few years, when I understood what it meant. A couple of months later the padlock and tape came down, and a few weeks after that a Chinese family moved in. We never saw the FBI again, and the FBI never saw the separatists.

In retrospect, my baby-seizing mistake was understandable. The idea that a brown-skinned baby couldn't come from two ashen parents wouldn't have entered the mind of a two-and-a-half-year-old. After all, a young child has not yet learned the determinants of skin color, much less the fact that in America families are for the most part organized by skin color. Moreover, in the projects people seemed to come in all colors, shapes, and sizes, and I was not yet aware which were the important ones that divided up the world. At that age, the fact that my parents were much bigger than me was of much greater consequence than the fact that most of the other kids my size had darker skin.

I even felt culturally more similar to my darker-hued peers than to the previous generations of my own family. For one, I didn't talk like my parents, who had migrated to New York from Pennsylvania and Connecticut. I spoke like the other kids in the neighborhood. On the playground everyone pretty much spoke the same language with the same unique accent, no matter where our parents came from. While adults might speak only Spanish, or talk with a heavy drawl if they came from down South, our way of talking was like a layered cake; it had many distinctly rich flavors, but in our mouths they all got mixed up together. When we "snapped" on each other, little did we know we were using the same ironic lilt and intonation once employed in the Jewish shtetls of Central Europe. This Yiddish-like English had mixed with influences from southern Italians, Irish, and other immigrant groups to form the basic New Yorkese of the mid-twentieth century. We spoke with open vowels and dropped our rs: quarter was quartah, and water was watah. To this European stew we added the Southern tendency to cut off the endings of some words --runnin', skippin', jumpin'--a habit that came northward with many blacks during the Great Migration. We also turned our ts into ds, as in "Lemme get fiddy cents." The latest and most powerful influence was Puerto Rican. Within the Spanish-speaking world, Puerto Ricans were notorious for their lazy rs, just as New Yorkers were, so the fit was perfect. Whenever someone said mira, the Spanish term for look, it came out media.
Dalton Conley|Author Q&A

About Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley - Honky

Photo © Lisa Ackerman

Dalton Conley is University Professor and Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. He also teaches at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and Slate, among other publications. His previous books include Honky; Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America; and The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. Conley lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

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.

Praise

Praise

“With precision and poetry, this...absorbing volume [gives] readers a rare opportunity for insight into the complexities of race in America.”–San Francisco Chronicle

“Lucid, readable and almost entirely devoid of jargon.... A must read for thinking adults.”–The Washington Post

“A wonderful book.... A triumph.”–Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

"A wonderful book about growing up . . . as a white kid in a largely poor black and hispanic neighborhood. . . . A triumph." --Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Dalton Conley's Honky, a vivid and richly insightful memoir about growing up white in the predominantly black and Latino projects of New York's Lower East Side.

About the Guide

In America, being white usually means being a member of the majority. But for Dalton Conley, son of artistic but impoverished "middle-class" parents, the situation is reversed: he is virtually the only white kid in the housing complex in which he spends his most formative years. He describes his childhood as a kind of social science experiment to discover the real meaning of being middle class "by raising a kid from a so-called good family in a so-called bad neighborhood" [p. xiii]. This unique perspective, along with Conley's restless curiosity, provides a fresh and surprising look at the intersecting issues of race and class in America.

At first, Conley is unaware of racial differences, so much so that he tries to acquire a sister by kidnapping a black baby. But as he begins to learn the complex codes that register and regulate racial status, he tries desperately to fit in with his black and Latino neighbors. The results are mixed, as he develops friendships with Marcus and later Jerome but nearly has his throat slit in a skirmish with a member of the local gang, the Junior Outlaws. When his parents transfer him to P.S. 41 in the upscale West Village, Conley begins to live a dual existence, spending his school days with the children of wealthy white families and returning each afternoon to the violence and graffiti, the "four-color, in-your-face poverty" of his own neighborhood. And it is this straddling of two worlds, two neighborhoods, two cultures, two vastly disparate sets of expectations, that allows Conley to see more clearly how race and class really operate in America, and to perceive all the subtle but profoundly important privileges even an impoverished white kid enjoys over his darker-skinned peers.

As taut and dramatic as the best fiction but filled with the kind of insights that can emerge only from lived experience, Honky tells the riveting story of one boy's awakening to the problems of race and class that still affect us all.

About the Author

Dalton Conley is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University. Previously he taught in the departments of Sociology and African American Studies at Yale University. He is the author of Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America.

Discussion Guides

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?

Suggested Readings

Ursula M. Brown, The Interracial Experience: Growing Up Black/White Racially Mixed in the United States; Hasia R. Diner, Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America; Mitchell Duneier, Sidewalk; Scott L. Malcomson, One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race; James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother; Ernesto Qui–onez, Bodega Dreams; Brent Staples, Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White; Rebecca Walker, Black White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self; Richard Wright, Black Boy.

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