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Honky

Dalton Conley
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 243
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnjrh
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    Honky
    Book Description:

    This intensely personal and engaging memoir is the coming-of-age story of a white boy growing up in a neighborhood of predominantly African American and Latino housing projects on New York’s Lower East Side. Vividly evoking the details of city life from a child’s point of view—the streets, buses, and playgrounds—Honky poignantly illuminates the usual vulnerabilities of childhood complicated by unusual circumstances. As he narrates these sharply etched and often funny memories, Conley shows how race and class shaped his life and the lives of his schoolmates and neighbors. A brilliant case study for illuminating the larger issues of inequality in American society, Honky brings us to a deeper understanding of the privilege of whiteness, the social construction of race, the power of education, and the challenges of inner-city life. Conley’s father, a struggling artist, and his mother, an aspiring writer, joined Manhattan’s bohemian subculture in the late 1960s, living on food stamps and raising their family in a housing project. We come to know his mother: her quirky tastes, her robust style, and the bargains she strikes with Dalton—not to ride on the backs of buses, and to always carry money in his shoe as protection against muggers. We also get to know his father, his face buried in racing forms, and his sister, who in grade school has a burning desire for cornrows. From the hilarious story of three-year-old Dalton kidnapping a black infant so he could have a baby sister to the deeply disturbing shooting of a close childhood friend, this memoir touches us with movingly rendered portraits of people and the unfolding of their lives. Conley’s story provides a sophisticated example of the crucial role culture plays in defining race and class. Both of Conley’s parents retained the "cultural capital" of the white middle class, and they passed this on to their son in the form of tastes, educational expectations, and a general sense of privilege. It is these advantages that ultimately provide Conley with his ticket to higher education and beyond. A tremendously good read, Honky addresses issues both timely and timeless that pertain to us all.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92173-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. xi-xii)

    I am not your typical middle-class white male. I am middle class, despite the fact that my parents had no money; I am white, but I grew up in an inner-city housing project where most everyone was black or Hispanic. I enjoyed a range of privileges that were denied my neighbors but that most Americans take for granted. In fact, my childhood was like a social science experiment: Find out what being middle class really means by raising a kid from a so-called good family in a so-called bad neighborhood. Define whiteness by putting a light-skinned kid in the midst...

  4. one Black Babies
    (pp. 1-8)

    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...

  5. two Trajectories
    (pp. 9-18)

    How did I, the child of two white artists, end up living in the inner city—in the projects of 1969, no less? The short answer is that we had no money. My mother liked to joke that she had to “lie up” about our income to get food stamps. My father worked part-time in an art supply store; my mother was a graduate student at Empire State College. Despite our family’s economic circumstances, we enjoyed a degree of choice about where to live. My parents could have moved to a white, working-class neighborhood in the outer boroughs or in...

  6. three Downward Mobility
    (pp. 19-36)

    The flower box movement had embodied the notion that poverty was primarily an aesthetic problem. If we could just spruce things up a bit, we’d all have more hope; we might even become middle class. But by 1968 every surface in our neighborhood was covered with graffiti. Big Cyrillic-looking letters proclaimed DKA (Damien Kicks Ass) or asked SWN (Say What Nigger?). If a critic got to the letters they might have “Toy” scribbled over them, the ultimate dis of a tag. The text was judged not only on content but also on the style in which it was drawn and,...

  7. four Race Lessons
    (pp. 37-54)

    Learning race is like learning a language. First we try mouthing all sounds. Then we learn which are not words and which have meaning to the people around us. Likewise, for my sister and me, the first step in our socialization was being taught that we weren’t black. Like a couple of boot camp trainees, we had first to be stripped of any illusions we harbored of being like the other kids, then be built back up in whiteness.

    My sister Alexandra started getting the message as early as age two. She and I attended nursery school courtesy of the...

  8. five Fear
    (pp. 55-66)

    The steel door to our apartment was my security blanket. Behind it I was safe from the school castrator. I was safe from muggers. I was safe from other kids. My fear of assault was as constant as the bellowing of my lungs; I was only occasionally aware of it, only when it had ceased to be breathing and turned into panting.

    My mother had instructed my sister and me over and over again about what to do in certain emergency situations. This preparing for the worst made me more afraid on a day-to-day basis, but that was part of...

  9. six Learning Class
    (pp. 67-78)

    My new school, P.S. 41, was only a couple miles from where Rahim was murdered, but it might as well have been in Europe. It stood in Greenwich Village, an upscale neighborhood but one with fewer luxuries than other, wealthier areas of Manhattan. Doormen weren’t as ubiquitous there as in other white areas of the island, and the buildings—mostly small brownstones—did not look much different from many of the tenements in my neighborhood. They were just in better condition. It was as if the flower box movement had succeeded on this side of town. Apartments the same size...

  10. seven The Hawk
    (pp. 79-96)

    I was now a part-time, after-school honky, returning to the projects on the school bus each afternoon while most of my classmates at P.S. 41 sauntered home through safe Greenwich Village streets lined with brownstones, wrought-iron fences, and functioning tree wells devoid of heroin needles or other garbage. Michael and Ozan could decide on the spur of the moment to go to the science fiction bookstore to flip through paperbacks or try out the newest board game. When they went across the street to get a slice at Ray’s Pizza after school, I felt the power of class in a...

  11. eight Getting Paid
    (pp. 97-110)

    After the day of the hawk, Michael slept over fairly regularly on Thursday nights throughout fourth and fifth grades. I had swallowed my embarrassment over the laser interaction with Sean and grew less and less ashamed of my surroundings. I still faced the problem of money, however. Class I could fake to some extent, like I did withantidisestablishmentarianism, but money there was no finessing. Each Tuesday I swallowed my hungry fast-food cravings when Michael and I and whomever else he had invited promenaded around the Village, entertaining ourselves for a while before going to his house. Michael suggested that...

  12. nine Sesame Street
    (pp. 111-120)

    Just as I commuted each school day from a poor, minority section of New York to a white, upper-middle-class area, so did I travel each summer with my family to white-as-could-be, middle-class Pennsylvania. My sister and I went under duress. We longed to spend the summers in New York, when the sprinklers in the playground were turned on and kids would come streaming out of their stuffy apartments wearing bathing suits, making beelines for the metallic mushroom spouting water in the central courtyard. Instead, Alexandra and I had to swim in a cold artesian lake. Even though I dreaded Pennsylvania,...

  13. ten Welcome to America
    (pp. 121-132)

    Those first summers in Pennsylvania we camped out near enough to my grandparents’ house that we could do our laundry and take showers there; after that one of my mother’s few Jewish friends from her childhood in Carbondale lent us his cottage. We made our annual jaunts by packing everything we owned into the fifteen-year-old automobile we had received as a hand-me-down from my mother’s parents. We would ride the huge black Oldsmobile luxury sedan through the Pocono Mountains, my sister and I splayed out across the blue silk car seats. We used to pretend we were riding a cruise...

  14. eleven No Soap Radio
    (pp. 133-142)

    After returning from Pennsylvania that year, I started junior high school. The children at Intermediate School 70—the O. Henry School—were a mix of all races and classes. They included the privileged kids from P.S. 41, who now trekked one neighborhood northward, along with black and Hispanic students from the West Side projects and those of us who bused in from other parts of the city. Given how integrated it was, this school seemingly had the potential to sew the two halves of my life together. Little did I realize that putting many races in the same school did...

  15. twelve Moving On Up
    (pp. 143-150)

    While things may have been getting worse for me socially at I.S. 70, at home our family’s economic situation was improving. My mother had sold her first novel,Soho Madonna. Her manuscript had floundered for years with the titleSlum Goddess, but when she moved the setting a few blocks west to the up-and-coming Soho district and made the family upwardly mobile instead of economically stagnant, the manuscript sold. In 1980 it became the first paperback ever reviewed in theNew York Times, getting a rave.

    Shortly after it was released, Alexandra came home from school crying. “Why didn’t you...

  16. thirteen Disco Sucks
    (pp. 151-164)

    I had lost Marcus through my own belligerence. I had also drifted apart from Michael almost from the day we started at the new school; the following year he was accepted into Hunter, one of the best public schools in the city, and left I.S. 70. Luckily, that semester I made a new friend. Jerome McGill was black and commuted from my neighborhood. The first year we never seemed to take the same bus to school, but during seventh grade we got to know each other during our daily ride on the M14. Looking back, it seems eerie that I...

  17. fourteen Addictions
    (pp. 165-176)

    Over the course of seventh grade, Jerome and I spent more and more time together, alternating between playing video games at the Twin Donut near I.S. 70 and trying to invent our own by programming computers at the Radio Shack on Broadway. The owner of the electronics franchise, which was situated about halfway between school and home, thought it made good publicity to have kids sitting in the store window clacking away at the keys of his floor models. Several of us from Avenue D spent our after-school hours there, writing our own versions of Pong or an interactive, computerized...

  18. fifteen Symmetry
    (pp. 177-190)

    The first morning back to school in 1982 did not feel much different than any other. As I waited for the M14 bus, I looked for some sign, something in the air that would indicate or at least imply that it had actually happened—that Jerome had been critically wounded a few days before, only a few blocks from where I boarded the bus every day. Everything was crisp. The unseasonably warm weather that had accompanied the Christmas break had disappeared, and the sky was a uniform dark blue, an almost-faux color that belied the coldness of the air. The...

  19. sixteen Fire
    (pp. 191-202)

    One afternoon, my need to do everything in sets of two not only failed to protect me but actually put me in danger. I had restarted karate for the first time since Rahim’s death; the class met after school on Mondays and Wednesdays. Thedojowas located in the building where Raphael, one of my few remaining friends at I.S. 70, lived. Raphael, who attended karate with me, was a different type of Latino from those I had known previously, the first minority individual I had met who confounded the overlap of race and class. He was well off. His...

  20. seventeen Cultural Capital
    (pp. 203-218)

    As I had originally anticipated, my whole life soon started afresh. Not long before Jerome was shot, I had taken a high school admission test along with almost every other eighth grader in New York. Shortly after the blaze at Raphael’s house, I was relieved to learn I had made it into one of the three academic schools and would not have to remain at I.S. 70 for another year. Thanks to standardized testing, my record of videogame truancy and pyromania meant nothing.

    I had made it into the second most selective school, the Bronx High School of Science, which...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 219-228)

    I spent my high school years shuttling in and out of our new building, trying to remain undetected after that first encounter with the clique in the courtyard. Moving into a white enclave had done little to integrate me into local life. The new location did pay off for me, however, by facilitating my school-based social life. At Stuyvesant I became friends not with the wealthy Greenwich Village kids but with those from the working-class outer boroughs my parents had forsaken fifteen years earlier. These kids commuted hours longer than I ever did to get an education. Since I was...

  22. Author’s Note
    (pp. 229-231)