Mon | May 25, 2020

Curating the history of a people

Published:Sunday | April 26, 2020 | 12:00 AM
Glenville Ashby
Holocaust book cover

Redlining a Holocaust is a rigorously researched oeuvre that establishes Dòwòti Désir as one of the most important figures in contemporary African thought.

Redlining is an imaginative and monumental undertaking, a literary, visual, and oratorical journey (the author’s words speak to us) that responds to the centuries-long genocide, impugnment, and neglect of Africans (blacks) globally. African historicity has been wilfully undermined by spurious academia and wanton disinformation, Désir posits. Capturing the African experience demands more that accurate data collection. Geographic spaces freeze the Maafa (African holocaust) in perpetuity. These spaces energetically hone in on the human senses on a psychic level, rendering the experience immutable and imprescriptible.

Spirited and rich with meaning, Désir is the consummate teacher, her savoir vivre unmistakable, her writing at times fittingly imbued with a kind of paroxysm that serves her well. She concedes that much: “ Because I am a product of the diaspora and the Maafa is the foundation of my exploration, at times my fury, my writing is a deeply personal matter.”

No one could previse the deracination of a people and the brutality that ensued.

Kantian and Hegelian philosophy were no more than a stalking horse to justify the transatlantic slave trade. Further, there was hardly a pushback from the dominant religious establishment. It was an zeitgeist advanced without demur.

At the outset, Désir recounts her Bildungsroman, and later, her intimately supernal journey into Haitian Vodou that shapes her interpretation of the African dynamic. Deft and detailed, she weaves mythology into African existentialism.

“African principles of community formation are related to how we work, struggle and build together in Vodou. It is related to familial structures as embodied in the Lwa, Kouzen Azaka (cousin Azaka) which underscores the merits of collective living, and economic models, that encourage communal growth,” she writes. “More important Vodou’s creation myth tells us the sons of Mawu Lisa (the Almighty): Gu or Ogou and Dan (also Danballah, who is later joined with his female counterpart Ayida Hwedo) to hold and uplift our universe together. Ogou clears the land and makes it habitable for human beings. That Dan’s brother is the Lwa of justice is not an accident or coincidence. Eco-theologies are connected to the ecologies of specific historical and geographic milieus.”

The shattering of this eco-theology was stark.

Désir expounds, “The total number of genocides committed in the 20th Century and the 21st Century (excluding democide) are not equal to the number of Africans killed during 4 centuries of slavery … An analogy that some may argue is temporally and ethically unfair, yet we have no way of comprehending what the depth and breathe of trauma on the global African person without making these comparisons.”


The call for reparations emerged out of this bitter reality, a subject that has perennially rankled detractors. On this matter, Désir avers, in the vein of other academicians, that “monstrous misdeeds linger as what is morally inexpiable” and that “reparations cannot be restricted to financial compensation; that there is a uniqueness about genocide that tips the scale towards indelibility”.

Désir argues: “Imprescriptibity, the infallibility of time [is] a principle that is not simply a juridical issue but a moral, and mnemonic one as well.” She cites Martin Beck Matuštík, who describes imprescribility in terms of the “unforgivable”, meaning “the extended time limit exceeds only the passing away of finite time, [thereby] imbibing the sacred into international law”.

Désir adds, “Forgiveness of the unforgivable cannot be legislated, commanded, expected.” Thus, “The concerns of mnemonics, spatiality and the architectonics of spaces where histories are documented, nurtured, archived, and transmitted is critical not only in the context of the human mind, body and spirit, but these constructs must also be reflected in the built environment. Again, the issue of spatialization and the radial and multi-tiered reading of space, knowledge and memory are required to inform our humanity and to grasp how the Maafa dehumanised the African person.”

Of the searing implications of the African holocaust, Désir notes, “Eco-theologies are connected to the ecologies of specific historical and geographic milieus. That land is a category of space upheld by the same spiritual force that equates it with agency is significant. In the African world view, the sacred dynamics and interactions defining space include land (in part) because it supports, feeds and sustains community, it houses clean water, and hosts minerals and plants that enrich and heal community. More important our relationships to land are tied to the kinship structures of family; to generating and sustaining intergenerational wealth, be it intellectual, spiritual, material or economic. All of these elements are memory shaping and responsible for the formation of our character … . To fulfil the responsibilities of community, and to understand the nature of the personal contract we have with Bondye (God) is a task acquired upon African naming ceremonies for children. It is knowledge held fast within family. Collective and personal understanding is further underscored upon other rites of passage such as initiation into spiritual societies, civic organizations, and peer groups (ebges) make clear the path of each individual, and social aggregate.”

Désir emphasises that these spaces are more than historical footprints; they are sacrosanct. They are representations of collective experiences that are painful and equally liberating. These spaces are so constructed that they accurately procure the black experience as they cement the psycho-spiritual and cultural DNA of a people. Spatiality cannot be overstated. It is the incubator of all reality.

Of the illustrations that cement her argument, Désir writes, “[They] are portals that reveal their own tales such as the doors and entryway of a former bank that financed the slave ships disembarking from the largest slave trading port in Europe: Liverpool (fig. 48). Others like the ‘door(s) of no return’ in Benin, Ghana, and Senegal (figs. iv, 55, 80) tell other narratives. One is symbolic and metaphysical, placed on the grated sand of a beach that harbours its own secrets is not only a ‘door of no return’, but also one of return.”

Resoundly, every space is brought to life with photographs that stir our every sense. Désir’s research traverses Africa and the Americas, some photographs celebratory and disencumbering, others brutal and lugubrious. Included are personages that shape history and scenes encapsulating the travails, horrors, and triumphs of a people. They include Angola’s Mwene Njinga Mbande, Belgium’s King Leopoldo, King Gbéhanzin of Benin, the Haitian Monument, the Cuffy 1763 Monument, Kongo Nkisi, the Bight of Benin, Toussaint L’Ouverture, La Puerta de Misericordia, and other stirring illustrations.


In humility, Désir expresses hope that her work bears fruit, writing, “If the texts and images gathered do not reveal the struggle for space and the battle for balance and parity of the global African person, then I have failed because in my own way, I aim to make evident the quest for recognition, justice, and development both spatial and social, more comprehensive and real for those who think the past warrants dismissal.”

Unambiguously, Redlining a Holocaust has redefined the African struggle for meaning, serving as a pedagogical tool that echoes with existential truths. It is an epistemological document of infinite relevance, not unlike the very spaces it has so richly captured.

Redlining a Holocaust, Memorials and The Peoples of the AfroAtalntic: Woch Kase Woch by Dòwòti Désir

Copyright (c) 2020 Dòwòti Désir

Publisher: Lulu Publishing Services, USA

246 pages, with 100+ colour images

ISBN: 978-1-68471-663-03 (sc)

Available on Amazon, For additional information:

Rating: Essential

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