'Honky' ain't just po' white trash
Thursday October 18, 2001
It's like looking through a sociological kaleidoscope.
What is it? It's Dalton Conley's latest book, "Honky."
Conley is an associate sociology professor at New York University, so now you're thinking this thing is going to be as dull and dry as a textbook.
But it's not, and that's what makes it so wonderful.
"Honky" tells Conley's story of what it was like to grow up as a young white male in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in the '60s and '70s in Manhattan. The area he was raised in thrived on crime, drugs and gangs, and was wrapped in poverty.
Throughout the novel, the author recalls various memories to illustrate his run-ins with each of these issues and integrates how the color of his skin affected the outcome in each situation.
The way Conley sends his messages about race through his stories is amazing and doesn't seem disjointed at all - rather, the lessons are a natural part of the story and don't even seem to be lessons.
Conley employs his first example of this in the story of his baby sister.
When Conley was nearly 3 years old, his parents told him that his mother was pregnant. After learning what that meant, Conley became fixated on the idea of having a baby sister and asked his parents numerous questions about the baby, most of which they could not answer right away.
Frustrated and impatient, Conley decided to take matters into his own hands. While playing in the housing project's courtyard, he found an unattended stroller with a black baby girl inside and took it to show his mother.
After his mother told him he hadn't found his sister, she returned the baby and all was well. The lesson was Conley's toddlerhood obliviousness to race.
"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," Conley wrote.
As he began school, the realization that the world was divided by race and class quickly became apparent to him, and Conley learned through all his years of schooling how the two could work for and against him.
Conley started his education in a school with three classes - the black class, the Puerto Rican class and the Chinese class. Being the token white boy, this worked to his advantage.
Next, he found himself at a rich, predominantly white school, where he was no longer the exception to the rule. The kids were much smarter, and Conley tried to emulate them to fit in.
As he continued to progress through school, he became delinquent and cut classes to play video games. After his mother caught him, he worked on finishing school.
Conley ended up finishing high school and going to college, where he eventually graduated and became a professor of sociology.
Conley's writing style is engaging, and the stories transport readers to Manhattan so they feel like they were there all along.
"Honky"'s balance between entertainment and racial and class education is done so superbly that the only way to experience the richness of his book is to get a copy and read it yourself.