“Honky” is the true story of Dalton Conley, a white kid, growing up in a minority community. The story takes place beginning at the end of the 1960’s and concluding in the early 1980’s and takes us from the authors early childhood to college. Dalton Conley was white, with a Jewish mother and an Irish/English father. Both of Dalton’s patents were artists. His mother, Ellen, grew up in northern Pennsylvania, the daughter of a dentist, and was a graduate of Penn State University. She was active in the civil rights movement in the early sixties and later spent time in Haiti as a volunteer.
She is probably best described as somewhat of a “Flower child. ” Dalton’s father, Steve, grew up in Connecticut with moderately wealthy parents. He attended college at a small liberal arts school in Wisconsin but never graduated. During his junior year, his father lost his job and business and could no longer afford the tuition. Dalton’s parents were the starving artist type and lived in a tenement in Manhattan. The apartment was in a crime-ridden area and they were robbed several times. The last time they were robbed Daltons mother was able to identify the thief and have him arrested.
The thief threatened to kill the entire family upon his release so they decided to move. They applied for and were accepted into a new housing project, The Masaryk Towers, which was largely Black and Hispanic. Living in a predominately minority community and Dalton has no concept of race early on. When told his mother is pregnant he is almost three and completely unaware that both his parents being white will result in a white child. Dalton experiences being a minority among minorities and sees first hand how the cultural differences affect society.
Living in a minority area, he attends predominantly a black school where he learns of some differences between the cultures. In school finds, he is the only student who cannot be disciplined with corporal punishment because black teachers are fearful of striking a white child and his parents are steadfastly against it. Dalton’s parents use some connections and the address of a friend to have him transferred to a mostly white school after a child molester is caught castrating boys in the bathroom of his school.
There he learns what it is like to be white and finds the popular kids are those with the richest parents. Dalton finds himself in a unique spot in his new school because even though he is white, he is poor. On days, he sleeps at a friend’s house he is unable to buy snacks after school the way his white friends do. He decides he needs money to fit in and takes a job in a local store but is fired because of labor laws relating to minors. Dalton had considered himself a member of both the white school he attended and the minority neighborhood in which he lived.
That image was challenged when he realized he was embarrassed to bring his white friend to his house and when his baseball glove was stolen at knifepoint and his neighborhood friends did little to help. This was the point he realized he was an outsider in both worlds. Dalton spent his summers in middle class Pennsylvania camping near his grandparents house. Both he and his sister hated this but knew they were getting to do things their neighborhood peers could only dream about. Dalton and his sister had a difficult time making friends during the summer because they were city kids and the PA kids were rural.
When Dalton is about twelve, he becomes friends with a boy names Jerome who lives in his neighborhood. Jerome is the only other boy in his neighborhood who attends his school predominantly white school. He is the type of kid who is liked by all, accepted by both the white and black population. About a year, after they become friends Jerome is shot by a stray bullet and becomes paralyzed. Dalton has trouble dealing with this and ultimately becomes obsessive compulsive having to do everything in two’s for fear of bad luck. Dalton and Jerome drift apart and Dalton becomes good friends with another classmate named Raphael.
He is Latino, lives near the school and his parents have money. Dalton and Raphael accidentally set fire to Raphael’s apartment playing a game with matches. Both kids were found to blame for the incident and neither was punished severely. Dalton knows this would have been different if he had been black and the fire had been in one of the tenements near his home. When Jerome had been shot, Dalton’s mother had placed their name on a waiting list for low-income housing in Roosevelt Long Island and just before Dalton enters high school, the family moves.
Dalton is puzzled as to why they were given the housing instead of one of his neighbors and finds his parents being artists played a big role. Dalton had been accepted into a quality, public school known for its academics where he makes friends with the kids of working class families who commuted great distances, as he once did, to school. After high school, he leaves his family, moves to San Francisco, and attends Berkley. After college, he returns to New York, lives in Manhattan just a few miles from where he grew up, and is a professor at Yale. Theoretical Application
Dalton’s experiences growing up reflect many of the theories we covered during class. Early on he has little concept of what race is and considers himself part of the neighborhood in which he is growing up. Everyone around him is either Black or Latino but this is perfectly normal to him. While Dalton is growing up, he experiences marginality. He is a White, Jewish kid and as such, receives many privileges associated with that. On the other hand, he lives in a minority community and experiences, to some extent, the problems associated with being a minority. When Dalton is almost three years old, his mother is pregnant.
Dalton is very excited and cannot wait for his new sibling to arrive. Unable to contain his enthusiasm he kidnaps a Black baby and brings her to his mother while playing at the playground. His mother is understandably upset and quickly returns the baby to her mother and apologized profusely. The mother of the baby happens to be a member of a separatist organization, who lives in the same building and on the same floor as Dalton’s family. She is also upset but merely glares at Dalton’s mother with contempt. This incident would have probably been dismissed much more easily had Dalton and his mother been Black.
I think the distrust among the races helped to fuel this situation and if everyone involved had been of the same race the situation would have been laughed off. White privilege is a concept that comes up many times throughout the book. The first example was when Dalton is just 3 weeks old. On the 4th of July, Dalton is in the hospital with spinal meningitis and gravely ill. The holiday left the hospital staffed with mostly inexperienced residents and Dalton’s condition wasn’t improving. Dalton’s mother is extremely upset that test results have not yet come back and decides to take matters into her own hand.
She races to the lab where the tests were supposed to be getting done and finds it empty. Being an experienced lab technician, she performs the tests herself. The results give her the information needed to properly treat Dalton and she races through the halls to bring them to the Doctors. Dalton is saved. Had Dalton’s family been Black or Hispanic this incident might have had a different outcome. Dalton’s mother was able to enter the lab, perform the tests, and run wildly through the halls of the hospital without being questioned. I suspect if she was a minority this would not have been the case.
Another example of White privilege occurs when Dalton enters school. The principle explains to his mother that there are three classes in the school, a Black class, a Puerto Rican class, and a Chinese class and that there is no white class. Dalton’s mother is given the option of any of the classes, an option not available to the non-white students in the school. His whiteness also allowed him to avoid the corporal punishment doled out the Black students in his class. Institutional discrimination is evident many times throughout the book.
A good example is the disparity between the school he attends in the Black neighborhood and the school he later attends in the White neighborhood. The Black school is so small it is referred to as the “Mini School. ” The Mini School has only three classes and each has over forty students. The White school has many classes and a much smaller number of students per class. Dalton also tells us he is behind in his education after coming from the Black school and needs to catch up which says the Black school wasn’t providing him with the same level of education as the White school.
Another example of institutional discrimination is the overall cleanliness if the neighborhood where Dalton lives compared to that of the neighborhood where he attends school. When Dalton is bringing his friend from the white school to his house, he is embarrassed by the litter in the neighborhood and decides it is the fault of the area residents. (This also demonstrates a case of blaming the victim. ) At the time, he doesn’t consider the fact that both areas were a part of New York City yet the projects received less of the city services than the White neighborhood.
Dalton also mentions the trash facility is located within two blocks of the projects where he lives and even though he doesn’t come out and say it, I believe this is a form of environmental discrimination. Differential justice occurs when Dalton and his friend are playing with matches and accidentally set fire to the apartment of his more affluent friend. The two are only slightly reprimanded by police who choose to allow the families involved to handle any punishments themselves. Had both of the kids involved been Black or any other minority the police would have probably arrested them and handled the situation quite differently.
Dalton describes a situation that occurs in the future, where a black friend is caught in a drug raid and sentenced to jail. He doesn’t mention the level of involvement of this friend but implies it may have been different had his friend been white. It seems the children in the Black neighborhood had a poor self-image. As preschoolers, Dalton and his sister have an experience at a Christmas party in their preschool that makes an impression on them. In the head start program they attended, each child was given a doll for Christmas.
These dolls were ethnically similar to each student who received them so Dalton and his sister were given white dolls while the rest of the class received black dolls. These dolls were generic versions of Ken and Barbie but the Black children got black versions of the dolls. The little Black girls were very upset by this feeling the white doll was the better doll. They grabbed the doll from Dalton’s sister and eventually the doll was broken. The teacher did her best to quiet the students and explained black was beautiful but the Black children felt Barbie had to be white.
The neighborhood where Dalton lived was an impoverished and crime ridden area. People got used to bars on the windows, gunshots in the distance, trash strewn sidewalks etc. As a result, many of the kids he spoke up wound up as junkies, criminals or even dead. To me this fits in the category of a self-fulfilling prophesy because the kids became what they saw around them. They weren’t given the opportunity to advance from their station in life and this perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Dalton describes manhunt, a game they played as kids. The object of the game was for the person who was “IT” to evade capture by the rest of the participants.
He said the game was a useful tool for kids in the ghetto because it taught important life skills. Growing up in the ghetto meant you were more than likely going to live there forever so learning to evade capture taught you to avoid both criminals and the police. Being one of the hunters helped develop your posse mentality and was useful for the many kids who would ultimately become gang member. Dalton’s sister experiences racism and stereotyping when she is spending the summer in Pennsylvania in a white area. While she is at a sleepover with some of the white girls from the area, the kids are telling stories.
One of the stories uses the term “nigger” to define the villain and this is upsetting to her. The use of this word, by people who for the most part have never interacted with minorities shows how minorities can be guilty until proven innocent. They never even considered the people this was referring to, it was just a foregone conclusion that Blacks were niggers and bad people. These kids were apparently taught racial hatred at an early age. It seems the result of being a minority and forced to grow up in the ghetto started you on a treadmill where escape was almost impossible.
But a white kid in the same environment was given more and different opportunities and therefore had a much better chance to improve his/her life situation. Critical Evaluation I found “Honky” to be an interesting book. It allowed me to gain some perspective on the neighborhood where I grew up and better understand many of the privileges associated with growing up white. I was raised in Roxborough, a predominantly white area in North West Philadelphia. Here, the streets were relatively clean, you could walk to the store without fear, and the schools were among the best in the city.
I had taken for granted that this is how things were everywhere and was led to believe that if a neighborhood was bad then the residents were to blame. I won’t say I was shocked by what I read because deep down I think everyone knows that growing up in a poor neighborhood affords you fewer of life’s opportunities. I will say that after reading this book you get a much better understanding of how and why some neighborhoods are as they are and why minorities have such a difficult time making a better life for themselves.
This book makes it clear that not all neighborhoods are created equal and the minorities who are unfortunate enough to have to live in the depressed areas are caught in a trap. The book makes a strong argument for better means of integration. It tells me that people are a product of their environment and if you live in an area where crime is prevalent then you stand a good chance of becoming a criminal or possibly worse, being labeled a criminal because of your skin color. It also shows me that institutional discrimination is a very real situation and not to be taken lightly.
The book makes a strong argument for integration and assimilating the black minority into the mainstream. It is pointed out several times that the people in the neighborhood are doing their best to educate their children but the schools are lacking. It’s clear that most of the people who reside in the projects are no different from those in the dominant group. They want what is best for their children and what is best for them but are denied some of the basic services we take for granted that are necessary to make this happen. It also points out that stereotyping makes integration a difficult task.
When white kids refer to blacks as niggers, it shows a difficult road ahead. The book makes a compelling argument for integration. We are shown a group of people who, through no fault of their own, are stuck in a cycle of poverty. Dalton’s escape from this poverty shows the privileges bestowed on whites that made his escape possible. Others in his neighborhood could not have made the transition nearly as easily simply because they were black. Through integration, we could reduce or eliminate the black ghetto. If, for example, schools were funded equally many could escape.
Dalton uses the address of a family friend to gain entrance into the better school but this possibility doesn’t exist for the black kids because they have no friends in the white neighborhood. The book does however lack some details. We are not introduced to the families of the kids in the projects and have to draw our own conclusions. For example, Dalton’s mother is diligent in making sure he follows the right path by forcing him to sign contracts stating he won’t do this or that. We are not told about the parents of the kids on the bench drinking beer or why parents allowed teachers to use corporal punishment on their children.
The picture is sort of one dimensional in that we only are shown the minority group from Dalton’s perspective. I understand that this is an autobiography but some insight into the other minority families in the story may have helped clarify some points. After reading this book (and taking this class), I find many of the statements and observations of friends and family to be extremely offensive and shortsighted. I would recommend some people I know read this book but they would also need to take this class. I have always been labeled the “Only Democrat in the Republican stronghold” and my interpretation of this book brings proves that to me.
If I were to give this book to some of the people I know, they would discount many of the points made in the book and I would hear things like “Of course Dalton succeeded, he is white. ” That is a sad commentary on some of my friends but unfortunately, it is true. Overall, I found the book both interesting and educational. I hate to admit it but I expected to find the story contained instances of how Dalton was mistreated in the projects. Reading about the experiences Dalton had growing up makes it clear that the rules of the game are different if you are a minority.