Dalton Conley’s childhood was like a social-science experiment: Take a white boy and raise him in the housing projects on Avenue D. Fires burn in the streets, and sirens wail all night. A child molester lurks in the public-school bathroom, knives are carried on the playground, and when he wants to play baseball in the glass-littered park, the boy is told off: “Get the fuck out of here, Honky.”
Will this kid, whose family has no more money than anyone else in the projects, grow up like his neighbors?
The answer is no. Most of Conley’s African American and Latino peers found it all but impossible to get out of the ghetto. Today, he says, many of them work blue-collar jobs and some are serving time in prison. On the other hand, Conley has become the director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research and—at the relatively juvenile age of 31—a tenured associate professor of sociology at New York University.
Conley doesn’t see his new memoir, Honky (University of California Press, 242 pp., $22.50), as a classic tale of a poor boy climbing to the top despite many hardships. Rather, he insists it is a narrative of privilege. He always expected to go to college. He had innumerable social advantages because of the color of his skin and his artist parents’ links to the middle class. His success, he says, can not be detached from the cultural factors that made it so easy for him to get where he is.
We are walking through Conley’s old neighborhood on a warm evening, just around dusk. He is dressed the part of a successful university professor: crisp orange shirt, dark trousers, slightly tousled black hair. His voice has a deep rumble. As we stroll past the corner market from which he once stole candy and the park where someone held a knife to his throat, Conley points out landmarks, describing the scene as it was during his childhood: “During the 1970s there was a fire every night here. . . . And all those burnt-out buildings formed perfect nests for heroin, for shooting galleries, and later for crack houses.”
In seventh grade, Conley’s best friend, Jerome, was paralyzed by a ricochet bullet that came from one of these abandoned buildings. Following the accident, Conley developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder that fixed upon the number four. He began by kissing his loved ones twice on each cheek “for protection,” and soon found himself kissing the furniture for 20 minutes each day before leaving the apartment. Though the disorder eventually abated, Conley still does many things “in quiet sets of two or four,” he writes. “Compared to what befell Jerome, it is a small scar to carry through life. Nonetheless, it is a very real remnant of the violence that beset our neighborhood in the early 1980s.”
As we walk, Conley’s eager intelligence bounces back and forth between comical, bittersweet memories and a more removed, sociological perspective. “There was this candy store on Rivington that didn’t have any sign on it,” he says. “The kids named it The Cheap Store, because everything in it was cheap. And because the owner was cheap.” He laughs, but soon he’s the scholar again: “The only places in big cities that actually feel like small towns in 1950s America are, ironically, projects. . . . Community can stem from poverty.”
People borrow money from each other in times of need, he explains, but then when someone does have cash, he or she often finds there are numerous demands to loan it out, and soon it is gone. “That’s one way in which greater sense of community can be a restraining factor, keeping people from trying to better their lives.”
Conley did not assimilate. Perhaps his own lack of participation in the project community is one reason he was able to leave it. He is careful, however, not to blame his outsider position on his color but rather on his social awkwardness—”I’m a socially self-conscious person: Maybe it was me that was the problem”—but notes that his whiteness, combined with his family’s social class, allowed him many advantages denied his peers. He was able to finagle his way out of the disastrous neighborhood public school and into the well-funded P.S. 41; he didn’t go to juvenile detention when he set fire to a friend’s apartment; he attended art gallery openings, and the shelves in his home were lined with books. Eventually his parents managed to move the family to Westbeth, subsidized housing for artists in Greenwich Village.
“I don’t think social class is about current economic circumstances,” says Conley. “It’s about where you belong, and what your goals and expectations are. Mostly expectations: what you think you deserve, your sense of entitlement, how much of society is yours.” Those expectations, created by his race and class, led him through a string of upper-crust universities, and finally to NYU, where, as he says with some regret, “my occupation, where I live, and everything I do has segregated me into the white middle-class world.” Trying to stave off that sense of segregation, which increased when he stopped boxing after graduating from college, Conley spent years volunteering for the Big Brother program. But today, the increasing demands of two children and a full-time teaching job (at which he’s spearheaded a scholarship program for aspiring social scientists from high schools in his old neighborhood) mean that his social circle is more limited than it was in childhood.
And yet, Conley’s whiteness and his position in society by extension have been carefully contemplated: “I have studied whiteness the way I would study a foreign language,” he writes at the beginning of his memoir. “I know its grammar, its parts of speech; I know the subtleties of its idioms, its vernacular words and phrases to which the native speaker has never given a second thought.” Honky analyzes the advantages of skin color that so many Caucasians take for granted. At the same time, it is a thoughtful, often comic memoir—the story of a boy who not only lived to tell his tale, but understood it as well.