Since my area of interest leans toward multi-cultural, people find all sorts of books for me. My mom picked up Honky by Dalton Conley at a garage sale and I’m happy she did.
Honky is a compilation of Mr. Conley’s early memories living in New York public housing as the only white kid. His earliest memory is from when he was about three years old. He wanted a sibling so badly he ran up to a little black girl and insisted on taking her back home with him, to be his sister. Having a white boy try to “kidnap” her daughter didn’t go over well with the girl’s mother.
How Mr. Conley’s family ended up in public housing is important to point out. His parents were artists and their parents offered to help them in order to get them into an upper scale neighborhood. They weren’t interested in taking the help and thought it would be good for the family to live in this public housing community as the only white family amongst mostly black and hispanic people. They could never have guessed how it would affect their son.
While her son attends the the tough, local elementary school, Mr. Conley’s mother realizes that this public school isn’t the best option for her son and “works the system” in order to get him into a better school. Having always been the only “white” kid in school, Dalton had several keen observations upon entering his new “whiter” school. He was confused by Orzan, the Turkish boy, who was outspoken about his differences and was still comfortable with himself:
Orzan, by contrast, seemed to carry the make of foreignness with him through the halls of P.S. 41. It wasn’t about race, for he appeared as white as anyone else. It might have been about ethnicity, since his name certainly set him off form the rest of us. But the major division between Ozan and everyone else was of his own making: his political opinions, almost as a rule, diverged from those of the rest of class.
In contrast to Orzan, Dalton had defined himself as a minority white kid and was surprised when he wasn’t the minority any longer:
Suddenly, being white was no longer the marker that set me off from everybody else, that defined who I was. Being a honky may have made me twitch back at the Mini School, but it also gave me a certain freedom to act however I wanted, since people’s reactions never reflected anything about me in particular but could always be brushed off as a racial thing.
When young Mr. Conley and his new upper middle class friend accidentally start a fire in that friend’s apartment, he is stunned that nothing happens to them. The father doesn’t beat his son and the authorities don’t press the issue. He knows this would not have been the case in his ‘hood. He realizes soon enough that the inequalities of being poor just isn’t a money issue:
Not only does the government deprive low-income families of the opportunity to take care of their own kids and their own mistakes, it actively goes after them in the form of drug raids, weapons sweeps and other such policy initiatives. I learned this a few years later, when one of my neighbors was busted in a drug raid. Because he had recently turned eighteen, he was tried as an adult …and given twenty five years of hard time…..I remember Marc as the kid who used to pump me up with confidence, telling me that because I batted left handed I had a chance to be like the greatest homerun sluggers of all time.
I feel sorry for little Mr. Conley, everything in his life is about race and fitting in. He admits that later in life, he became a bit OCD and to this day has to do things in pairs. Reading Honky reminded me of I’m Down by Mishna Wolff. Ms. Wolff talked a lot about race and fitting in, but her issue really was her absent parents and her need for love from them. Mr. Conley’s early life is similar. He never understood why his sister never had problems fitting in regardless of race. Obviously, she didn’t use race as her stumbling block. Mr. Conley needed his parents to help him sort this out, but similar to Ms. Wolff, they were busy with their own lives and trying to survive as artists.
I understand that many kids have a desire to “fit in” and will do what they can to do feel accepted, but I’ve always believed that you need to be yourself – be a good person and the friend situation will work itself out. Fortunately, for my mixed-race daughter, she seems to already understand this at eight years old. She ‘gets’ that she will have friends based on similar interests and personalities, not race. Fitting in and friendship do not have to be about race unless you make it that way. Unfortunately for Mr. Conley, his parents couldn’t help him with this.