About midway through his excellent, humorous and poignant memoir of growing up white in the mostly minority inner-city that comprises the edges of Manhattan's Lower East Side, Dalton Conley strives to comprehend the forces that enabled him, unaccompanied by his non-white peers, to transcend the urban blight that characterized both the outer and inner landscapes of those living in his neighborhood. "I'll never know whether it was my mother's protectiveness, my expectations and aspirations, or simply my race that spared me from a worse fate," writes Conley. "I will never know the true cause and effect in the trajectory of my life. And maybe it is better this way. 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." Honky, at its core, is Conley's construction of his own narrative, a thoughtful examination of the trajectories that were at force in his childhood, as well as a personal and moving account of his gradual childhood acknowledgement of the significance of his whiteness and the privileges of race and class while growing up in multiple, unequal worlds. Clearly his book has a lot to teach - and it does - but in a thoughtful and non-preachy manner.
As a coming-of-age story, Honky is a study in contrasts: a child of white, progressive, and poor parents growing up in an otherwise Black and Hispanic housing project, an inner-city boy predominantly schooled in upper middle class public schools, and a fledgling, awkward teenager slowly seeing and coming to understand what he lyrically claims are the "invisible contours of inequality" that peopled the many worlds he simultaneously inhabited. His account is as refreshingly straightforward as it is honest, as, for example, when he realizes after moving from the inner-city with his family into a mostly white neighborhood during his high-school years his own self-proclaimed social awkwardness. "I paced in circles," writes Conley, "like a dosed up laboratory animal, wishing I were back in our old neighborhood, where at least I had my skin color to blame for not fitting in."
Conley's aim throughout his memoir is not so much to preach but to demonstrate, and by demonstrating, uncover what are essentially both the paradoxes and determinants of race and class in America. "If the exception proves the rule," he declares, "I'm that exception." He is forthright about the "cultural capital" of his family, that which allowed them, for example, to work the public schooling system to their advantage, using the addresses of friends in better neighborhoods as their own so that the author and his sister could attend better schools - an advantage seldom available to their minority peers. And never more aware is Conley of the lingering scars he harbors, both physical and emotional, that are the remnants of the violence that plagued his neighborhood in the 1970's and 80's and of which he carries today in his adulthood.
Honky is a must-read for those interested in complexities of race and class in America today. It provides a first-hand account of one who was forced to grapple with the language and idioms of whiteness in a way that most non-minority Americans take for granted. And his take on poverty in America is especially clear and bleak, a reflection by one who was able to both live in and transcend its grasp. Conley, now a sociologist at Yale, who is trained to develop statistical models to examine sociological problems, quips at the end of his memoir that "what's gained in story is lost in numbers." As regards to Honky we are fortunate that is the case.
Brian T. Peterson, New York City