Reflecting on Honky by Dalton Conley (2000).
The first time we watched the 2007 musical version of Hairspray, starring Nikki Blonsky and John Travolta, my kids were in fourth and fifth grade. After we stopped laughing over the scene where Seaweed ( Elijah Kelley) reassures Link he’ll be safe in the black neighborhood and calls him “Cracker-boy,” I quietly suggested they not use the term in school the next day. It just wouldn’t make sense to any of those white kids, I added.
Neither would “honky,” which is the moniker Dalton Conley uses to denote his whiteness growing up in the Masaryk Towers south of Avenue D in Manhattan. He describes the 21st floor apartment as having an outstanding view as fine as any upscale penthouse, as long as he didn’t look directly below, where the shattered glass and litter swirled on the sidewalks. Growing up in the 1980s, Conley was one of the only white boys in the public housing towers. In their neighborhood, hope could barely survive the destitution, and then the despicable flow of crack ravaged everything even further, deeper into despair.
Conley turns the tables on us. He is white and living in a predominantly poor Black, Hispanic and immigrant environment. Poverty was an equalizer for him there, though the middle and upper class backgrounds of his parents, their whiteness too, offered an escape hatch (hand me down clothing or cars) that few of his neighbors could count on. Conley’s mother dragged him by the ear on more than one occasion—to return stolen goods, get off the arcade game and get back to school. He saw how white and wealthy people could work things out between one another so small misdemeanors didn’t mean jail time—which was too often what happened for the Black kids.
His mother, Ellen Conley, was a force to be reckoned with as she steered her family through the mazes of city schools and housing. She had the agility (though not the financial resources) to figure out access—to managers or better schools and safer housing. She also had tough rules: no lying, no riding on the outside of buses, and no playing on the streets on major holidays because those were the most dangerous days. This turned out to be true for Jerome that Fourth of July when the bullet hit his neck.
The world shifted for Dalton when his best friend, Jerome was paralyzed by a ricocheting bullet as he walked down the block. “The old junkies never hurt anyone,” [Conley’s] mother said, pining for the days when heroin had dominated the local scene” (p. 185). After Jerome was shot, she started looking for a new place to live, and moved the family to an artists’ building in a neighborhood less prone to guns and violence.
Conley’s memoir offers insight into places I’ll never know, places that no longer exist, as his childhood was New York pre-crack and pre AIDS. Through his adult lens as a sociologist, he explains being in the minority as a white kid growing up in urban poverty, and learning how to be safe and cool in his neighborhood. His experiences as a kid with tattered clothes and scuffed sneakers were often embarrassing, but he learned there was more to school than cool. He describes a time he stood with the kids of color during a vote for music for a school dance. He stood with disco when the white kids wanted rock. His alliances often crossed this kind of line—boundaries other white people rarely realized even existed.
What made Conley the man he is today? A white kid growing up in a tough neighborhood isn’t the whole story. This is also a tale of consequences. The kid whose best friend was Black and suddenly paralyzed acquires OCD behaviors. After Jerome was shot, Dalton kisses everything in the apartment before he leaves, kisses his family members two times on each cheek before he will let them go out the door. He takes that dual kissing into his adulthood.
By the end of the book we learn that Jerome goes to Hollywood and stars in a PBS film and settles in Oregon. Conley becomes an academic and administrator. His father played numbers on the racetrack and Dalton himself is running numbers too, but in a computer lab. He searches mathematical codes to understand “the leitmotif of race and class.” Since Honky he has written on birth weight and health, sociology, and the impact of new technologies on individuality. But this memoir reaches beyond the academy. More readers may see what growing up in urban America is like, where bullets ricochet, kids play hide and seek in projects and parks, and the education system has to outwit the urge to drink and do drugs. Conley spins the tale so we see class and race vividly as part of white America too.
Seaweed, after the cracker-boy comment sings, “Run and Tell That!”
“I can’t see/Why people disagree/Each time I tell them what I know is true/And if you come/And see the world I’m from/I bet your heart is gonna feel it too.” (Scott Wittman & Mark Shaiman)
Honky is about a white kid who loved his friends—Puerto Rican, Jewish, African American. Conley continues to search for the reasons for their differences.
I’m sure that the more we come and see the world we are each from, as the lyrics entreat, our minds will follow our hearts. This is not hyperbole or idyll romanticism. It requires extremely hard work. It is clear after reading Honky that as more white people tell their stories of race and class, the more we will understand that this (landscapes of race and class, and gender too) is the world we are all from. The alliances are there for us all to join so the world can become a better place—if we dare.
Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape From the Crowd by Thomas Chatterton Williams (2010).
Thomas Chatterton Williams has written a memoir with a theme about losing his cool to be who he more honestly is. He had to give up some daunting style, break from peer pressure and brand named accessories. He had to give up hiding his talents. He came to realize he was living a media-induced style and he had taken it in hook, line, and sinker.
We all know the power of music and media. Consider the Sixties’ hippies grooving to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles. The Graduate and Easy Rider, trying to make sense of the Republicans and Democrats, the first Moon Walk and the Vietnam War.
Young people are still trying to makes sense of Republicans and Democrats, the Moon Walk is a dance move perfected by Michael Jackson (may he rest in peace), military personnel are entrenched in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hip hop lyrics too often shun, shame and disparage women and gay people. The lyrics idealize violence, staying high, and money. Lots and lots of money.
Williams describes his middle class New Jersey neighborhood, his educated and working parents whose bi-racial marriage has lasted, the basketball, his first love, the sex at his prom party. He talks about his peers who get pregnant, peers who are abusers of women, other friends who are hooked on drugs. He writes about the white kid who is beaten for attitude on the basketball court. He writes about the kids who decide they are too cool for school; he even blew his first year at Georgetown University because he was. One day he realizes the white kids are listening to the same music he has been listening to and they hear the great rhythms and the incredible verbal agility. He recognizes those kids hear irony when he has been hearing a code to live by. But so many of the youth of his neighborhood were in jail, pregnant, or cared more about drugs than living.
This is a young black man’s memoir. He is the child of a white working mother and black intellectual father, middle class, great at sports and school. He trades in his baggy pants and athletic clothes. His father buys him a suit, some shirts and ties. He finishes his undergraduate degree. The friend who studied with him and his father also graduated but no one else did. I hear the power of the media— black youth become caricatures of lyrics just as young women become anorexic embodiments of photo-shopped portraits of models. So much has been written about them—now we hear about the black kids who are equally bamboozled into buying into a self-defeating storyline.
Williams offers some powerful insight:
It is more accurate to say, however, that the mood of black culture doesn’t need to change into something wholly new so much as it must simply find a way to reclaim what it once had. One of the most fascinating paradoxes the student of black history ever observes, as well as a tremendous justification for black pride, is the extent to which this culture, against all likelihood, has customarily embodied a joyful, soulful, affirming approach to life and not a spiritually bankrupt or self-defeating one. It is only very recently–basically within my brother’s lifetime, which is to say, the three and a half decades of the hip-hop era or, roughly, the post-Civil Rights era–that this has, in the main, ceased to be the case. In other words, it is only after the tremendous civil-rights victories of the ’60s, only after desegregation, only after affirmative action that black America has become so militantly provincial and wildly nihilistic (214).
Williams found his way to freedom. We need to understand what he is saying, what he is daring to say, and get the word out to bring back beloved community and joy.