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.
Dalton Conley is a professor of sociology at Princeton University. In 2005, Conley became the first sociologist to win the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Alan T. Waterman Award, which honors an outstanding young U.S. scientist or engineer. He writes for… More about Dalton Conley
“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
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.