This is one of the few times that I get to write the word Honky and not feel kind of funny about writing it. Therefore I am going to write the word Honky every few words simply to establish that using the word Honky does not make me George Jefferson. For those of you who are not old enough to understand what the word Honky means, or you are not familiar with my George Jefferson reference, I’ll use Honky once more to establish that I actually feel pretty good saying Honky. George Jefferson was a fictional television character on the sitcom The Jeffersons, which was a spin off of All in the Family which featured the greatest Honky ever in television, Archie Bunker. These refererences actually take me away from the point that I’m trying to make which is Honky is not just a word, it is a non-fiction book written by Dalton Conley.
Conley is currently a professor at the Wagner School of NYU, but his background in regard to his current position is not really the point here. After reading Disintegration by Eugene Robinson, which I consider a good introduction to Post Civil Rights Black America, I needed to read something in the same frame. I considered several books, but I went with my play Mom’s suggestion of reading Honky by Dalton Conley. The book was released in 2000, but as a memoir it captures Conley’s youth and creates a narrative that is less memoir, and more a poetic narrative. While I often question memoirs and its new sibling creative non-fiction, Honky feels true. None of the book feels like it is embellished. There aren’t a thousand shiny little lies floating around that call into question Dalton Conley’s ability to discuss race, and Conley makes one astute observation after another in presenting his story.
What is Honky? Well, as a racial term it is a catchall for all White people that I guess could be considered in the same view as Wetback, Spic, FOTB, or Nigga. Then again all of those just feel like they have a more negative connotation and honestly, I have never really used the word outside of copying Fred Sanford or George Jefferson. Maybe it’s just me though… When my play Mom suggested I read Honky, my initial thought was it would be bad. Anyone who has to play around with racial epithets in order to generate a case study of class and race in America couldn’t be taken seriously. It’s like naming a book Nigger simply because it will generate attention. Honky, however, tells the story of Dalton Conley a young White, jewish, kid growing up on Avenue D in New York. His parents made a conscious decision to live in the “projects” and to raise their family as a minority in an area that looked like the reverse of Good Times for the Conley family. I guess if I had to break down Honky into a one sentence description, I would state that Dalton Conley’s memoir places his white family into the role of the Evans’ family in Cabrini Green; with the exception that Conley’s reflections establish that unlike the Blacks and Latinos around him, his family had a choice.
This is the foundation of the text. Honky captures the difficult concept of both class and race although it is the story of one family. The inherent contradictions of the benefits and drawbacks of race and class created the sociologist who created the memoir. Had Dalton Conley grown up in Greenwich Village instead of the projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I don’t think he could have become the culturally aware critic and analyst who matter of factly presents the confusion of race in America. Dalton Conley had to be the white face in the crowd at the Mini School. He had to disappear into the crowd at IS 70. Conley had to befriend Jerome and attack Marcus, both Black boys who Conley seemed closer to than any White kid in the narrative. Conley had to steal from the Bodega and apologize, to balance out the fact that he did something horrible to Raphael’s family. Actually, the something horrible happened afterwards. In short, the nervous tics, the eratsepion from his fellow classmates who would be hit by the teacher as discipline, while he would not because he was not Black, were all needed for him to become the man who wrote Honky.
I guess it’s kind of like my waking up an hour earlier than everyone else in the neighborhood, standing in the freezing cold, with Vaseline on my face, a green turtleneck with a yellow smiley face on the chest, and an afro with shiny Sta-Soft-Fro, being bussed to an all White school, in the seventies; where the white kids would ask why my face was so shiny. These are the things that make us aware that this is not a post racial society. As a matter of fact, unlike Robinson expresses, we will never be in a post racial society. Even if we were all brown people, we would find a way to classify ourselves and like Dalton Conley expresses in Honky, class would further distinguish us.
Honky is a must read, not because it can help in the discussion of American society, but because dammit, it is a very good book.