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  • At Exodus as the Door of (No) Return
  • Kenneth Ngwa

Charting Paths and Maps

In the wake of the elections in the United States—elections during which many issues were raised and debated, including race and ethnicity, migration and immigration, gender, masculinity and sexual assault, nationality and religion, ability and disability, exceptionalism and decency, healthcare and trade, criminal justice reform and police violence, environmental justice and income inequality, and so on—poets and political pundits; scholars, teachers, students, and clergy; psychologists and counselors; comics and playwrights have been working hard to “make sense” of it all. As I tried to argue after Michael Brown’s shooting death, some practiced routines of communal responses to the traumas of deadly, racial animus are sadly becoming predictable: a funeral service where the Bible is read and referenced in search of hope and justice; and a legal process that rehashes the old, old question of equality before the law and the experience of that equality—if and when it comes—as a posthumous credo to console the weary hearts of victims. How that debate is formulated locally and globally is particularly poignant when specific bodies are always seeking and asking for justice, oftentimes feeling hollow from having witnessed how justice itself is executed in dead bodies lying motionless on the streets or in coffins.1

As I have interacted with many thinkers and students, I have found myself returning to Jan Assmann’s concept of mnemohistory as a useful trope for grappling with the mental, physical, political, and emotional exhaustion that comes with activating distinct kinds of memories and traumas and losses and hopes and institutionalizing them through a public ritual (read: election process). Grounded in a history-of-religions approach to biblical studies, Assmann’s concept deploys [End Page 213] methodological insights from literary and narrative theory, along with Freudian psychoanalysis on trauma and Halbwachsian social theories on structures of memory. A subfield of historical studies, mnemohistory is, in its most simplified formulation, “reception theory applied to history.”2 The hermeneutical vehicle that carries this theory is cultural memory—understood as probing the depths of time and the phenomenological “archive” of human existence; it is distinguishable from other forms of memory (e.g., bonding memory) by encompassing “the age-old, out-of-the-way, and discarded” events of the past. In other words, cultural memory “includes the noninstrumentalizable, heretical, subversive, and disowned.”3

But what does it mean to institutionalize the “noninstrumentalizable, heretical, subversive, and disowned”? And what constitutes the heretical and noninstrumentalizable, in terms of content and process of identity formation? In other words, how have acts of racial violence in the United States and around the world contributed to assessments of what is heretical and what is not? These questions of endangered belonging; of racialized history, politics, religion, and culture strike me from multiple directions, often not in isolation but in tandem. This multipronged force of community fragmentation and formation, forged in response to violent genealogies to which my identity is linked by the force of political history or of narration or of education or of religious heritage or of membership and citizenship, compels me to make hermeneutical moves that grapple with the twin experiences of alienation and erasure and their rootedness in history and storytelling.

In her captivating book A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand remembers when, as a thirteen-year-old, she tried to help her grandfather remember “what people we came from.” They worked through a few possible African ethnic names but settled on none. That unresolved search and conversation, on this side of the Atlantic, opened a small space in Brand and, over time, came to “reveal a tear in the world.” In Brand’s words:

I would have proceeded happily with a simple name. I may have played with it for a few days and then stored it away. Forgotten. But the rupture this exchange with my grandfather revealed was greater than the need for familial bonds. It was a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being. It was also a physical rupture, a rupture of geography.4

More than physical spaces across several countries along the coast of...


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pp. 213-220
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