As recalled in Honky, Dalton Conley''s childhood has all of the
classic elements of growing up in America. But the fact that he was
one of the few white boys in a mostly black and Puerto Rican
neighborhood on Manhattan''s Lower East Side makes Dalton''s
At the age of three, he couldn''t understand why the infant
daughter of the black separatists next door couldn''t be his
sister, so he kidnapped her. By the time he was a teenager, he
realized that not even a parent''s devotion could protect his best
friend from a stray bullet. Years after the privilege of being
white and middle class allowed Conley to leave the projects, his
entertaining memoir allows us to see how race and class impact us
all. Perfectly pitched and daringly original, Honky is that rare
book that entertains even as it informs.
Dalton Conley is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Advance Social Science Research at New York University. He lives in New York City.
Dalton Conley is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of
the Center for Advance Social Science Research at New York
University. He lives in New York City.
1) Dalton Conley begins by asserting that he is "not your
typical middle-class white male," and that his childhood was like
"a social science experiment" [p. xiii]. What is the value of such
an experiment? How much do you think Conley''s parents'' decision
to live in the projects was a matter of choice and how much was it
out of their control? How much choice does any family ultimately
have--black or white? How does Conley''s unique experience shed
light on the values and assumptions of more conventional
2) Conley says that "race and class are nothing more than a set
of stories we tell ourselves to get through the world, to organize
our reality" [p. xiv]. What does it mean to treat race and class as
subjective rather than fixed and objective categories? In what ways
does Honky bear out Conley''s thesis? How do his
experiences help him understand the tangled issues of race and
3) Impatient for his own sister to be born, Conley temporarily
kidnaps a black baby. What does this action suggest about how young
children perceive racial difference? What does it suggest about how
racist attitudes are acquired?
4) Conley vividly describes the poverty and violence of the
projects in which he grows up, a place where he is ashamed to bring
his white friend Michael and where his own life has been
threatened. And yet when the family decides to move, he is
reluctant to leave Avenue D behind. Why is he so attached to that
world? What are the positive qualities of his neighborhood and the
people who live there?
5) In the Author''s Note, Conley argues that while his book
lacks the scientific rigor of an ethnography, it compensates with
the depth of insight that comes from living in a social setting,
"rather than swooping in from afar to gather data for a time before
going home to dinner and one''s real life" [p. 205]. What are the
most significant insights that Honky offers? In
what ways is Conley''s firsthand experience more valuable than
6) After Conley accidentally sets fire to his friend Raphael''s
apartment, he realizes, "Had the fire not been in Chelsea but down
the street from our house in one of the row tenements that lined
Avenue D--or had I been of a different skin tone--the whole matter
might not have been settled so casually" [p. 181]. What other
experiences make Conley aware of his privileged status as a white
person? What effect do these revelations have on him?
7) What coping strategy does Conley employ after the shooting of
his best friend, Jerome? What does he try to achieve through this
behavior? What does it suggest about the effects of living in a
violent environment on young children?
8) When Conley wonders about why his life has turned out as it
has, he writes, "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" [p. 110]. In what ways do the media and society construct
the narratives of blacks and other minorities in America? What are
those narratives? What purposes do they serve for the dominant
ethnic group? What effects do they have on minorities?
9) What does Conley discover about race and class when he
changes from P.S. 4 in the projects to P.S. 41 in the West Village?
What does he learn about the different codes for fitting in and
being an outcast? How does his experience away from the projects
allow him to see them, and his own minority position within them,
more clearly? Do you find fault with Conley''s parents for lying
about their address to the school board? Why or why not?
10) In one of the strange ironies of race relations that
Honky explores, Conley longs to be called "nigga"
by his black friends. "Every time [Marcus] applied the word to me I
relished the sound of it, as I might savor an exotic delicacy"[p.
123]. What does being called "nigga" signify to Conley? What does
it mean that he can''t say the word himself? What might account for
the transformation of this hateful racial epithet into a term of
approbation among blacks?
11) Honky ends abruptly when Jerome asks the
Conley family why they have moved to Chelsea. Mrs. Conley replies,
"Because of you." What does she mean?
12) In what ways does Honky illustrate, rather
than merely assert, the privileges that even poor whites like the
Conleys can enjoy in the United States? Why is Conley, unlike most
of his neighbors in the projects, able to get a first-rate
education and a prestigious job?
13) What role, if any, does the background and education level
of Mr. and Mrs. Conley play in their ability to secure advantages
for their family? Is skin color the only factor that influences a
person''s socioeconomic status?
14) Honky is about race and class, but it is
also a memoir about family and about growing up. How do Conley''s
mother and father shape his character? In what ways do his friends
influence him? What about his personality made his time in the
Lower East Side more difficult than it needed to be? Is it
surprising, given his childhood, that Conley should end up as a
sociologist and writer? What qualities of Conley''s personality
suit him to this choice?
15) Although Honky is concerned with telling a
story rather than making an argument, what larger conclusions might
be drawn from the book? Based on the experiences that Conley
relates, what proposals could be made for improving the lives of