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Vilson Decoded (A review of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class and Education)

Disclaimer: I want to say first, I love this book for many reasons. I will likely only be able to address a few here. I also need to say that I can not write this review with any sense of objectivity. It would really not do any justice to the work Jose Vilson put into this book or to my feelings about. Besides, objectivity is the language of the oppressor, like multiple choice tests.

 

When I got my copy of This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education I held on to it. I was really afraid to read it because my friend, colleague, hero, and confidant had made a bold claim in his title. He claimed his memoir offered something new to the discussion of race in our country, specifically in our schools. I wanted, for so many reasons, for his claim to be verifiable. As the minute hand pushed me into a corner I dove into the text this past week. I found my answer.

 

Is this a “new” narrative on race, class, and education? I think it just might be.

 

This is why.

 

As I read, I came across some familiar material from our discussions, my fanatical reading of his blog, and previous versions of the manuscript. Then, I read Chapter IV: What Happened. That is when I realized that the “higher self”, the one that Jose mentions in his acknowledgments of John Norton’s support, dictated this book even if it was penned by a master DJ. In this chapter Jose wrote about when he went head-to-head with a teacher who would not acknowledge Jose’s home/street language code in his classroom. As often happens in a dominant culture clash, the teacher threatened. At first, Jose didn’t understand what the teacher wanted, as it turned out it, was a formal (white/dominant culture) response in a language interaction. But, then, as we relive it with Jose, we realize as he understood. Jose responded by accepting the challenge, his teacher’s punishment. He refused to give up his code and accepted the consequences. Then as we realize that he turned the interaction on its head, we also realize that he has remixed this interaction again. In writing about this experience, in the context of this narrative, Vilson reveals levels of understanding about what it means to be not of the dominant class. We read the story of “what happened.” We learn the meaning of “what happened” to Jose, the student. We decode “what happened” from a psychological/personality standpoint. We learn what happened in the 1990s in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and we learn what happened when Jose grew up. We get layer upon layer of meaning. We hear from Kanye West, Slick Rick, Paolo Freire, 2Pac, and Lisa Delpit. The complexity of thought that can be decoded can only be compared to the likes of Jay-Z (also a character in the story) in its interplay of temporality, meaning, citation, experience, and emotion.

 

Which brings me to one of the truly original ways I see this adding to the conversation about race and class in our schools. It is new not only in what it talks about, a Dominican and Haitian boy who grew up to be a teacher and education advocate, but also in how Jose talks about it.

 

This is how it is new.

Jose Vilson speaks/writes/rhymes and teaches us in codes in order to address the levels of microaggression perpetrated on a daily basis against those outside of the dominant race and class.

 

Vilson uses coding/encoding/decoding not only as a metaphor but as a process. He talks of learning the codes of his Catholic school, computer coding in college, even coding data in his one of his first jobs out of college. He also writes in codes. He switches back and forth and through Jose’ (the Dominican boy but also his students), The Jose Vilson (the 90s kid turned hip hop star), Jose Vilson (the heavyweight fighter policy voice), and Mr. Vilson (the teacher). As one reads it these varieties of voices start to overlap, split apart, bring a rhythm and a reason of their own. Each distinguishable and specific. Then, as the logic to the coding takes hold, Jose does something truly new. He brings these voices into the present and starts to break down the big policy debates of our current educational era. He doesn’t use his codes to confuse, or obfuscate, but to clarify I and present the multitude of layers of understanding with which we should be approaching our education system. He dismantles the common core, standardized testing, ed-tech, and privileged education reformers.

 

In summary, I offer this:

At its essence this narrative is an aggressive act in that it addresses race and class through its own codes and it flips the codes of the dominant culture on itself. This is not for the faint of heart. Vilson asks us in education to give up our distanced “professional” self for one that thirsts for understanding and the ability to empower those we teach.

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