Emily Raboteau, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora
Barack Obama or Bob Marley, Emily Raboteau was born the child of two
races, in a society that tries to force everybody into prepared
categories. Who could blame her for feeling alienated, especially when
encountering cultures where race confers insidership. Like countless
African Americans before, Raboteau went in search of the mythic black
homeland. The quest forced her to confront the ways she didn’t know she
already knew the answer.
memoir of the struggle with Zion proves the adage that only the
completely personal is truly universal. As she visits various places
that exert the call of “home,” she does not pretend to speak for one
race; with her quintessentially American mixed heritage, she cannot
speak for such sweeping categories. Rather, she shares one person’s
individual struggle with a lofty ideal that turns slippery when she
faces it in motion.
struggle begins with a trip to Israel in her early twenties. Growing up
in racially mixed Manhattan, Raboteau’s best friend was a Jewish girl
who shared her experience as a minority in America. When Tamar relocated
to the Holy Land after college, assumed Israeli citizenship, and wrote
glowing letters back to the states, it appeared she had achieved her
people’s ancient dream of reclaiming the homeland. Raboteau had to see
this for herself.
instead of finding her friend living in peace, Raboteau discovers Tamar
has become part of the power establishment in her adoptive homeland.
Tamar says, with her mouth, that she opposes state oppression of
Palestinians, but such statements don’t lead her to return the apartment
in her old Arab neighborhood that she has requisitioned. Israel, to
Raboteau’s eyes, mimics the lopsided power dynamics Jews sought to flee
initiates in Raboteau a search for “home,” a place she has never known.
Growing up rootless in a succession of American cities, she has never
known what it means to say: “Here. I have found my destination.” As
Wendell Berry puts it, she has never been very intentional about her
relationship with place. She has never known the peace of saying: “This
far I go, and no further.” Most Americans share this rootlessness, but
blacks, historically marginal and still outsiders, know it most acutely.
African Americans idealize Jamaica, the black island republic and Bob
Marley’s homeland, as a model of black nationalism. But the Rastafaris
she meets reject that this place is their home. They long for Ethiopia,
which they believe the Bible calls the true messianic homeland, calling
Jamaica the land of slavery. And far from establishing world peace,
Rastafaris repeatedly show themselves capable of the same shatteringly
blunt bigotry they claim to have survived.
like Marcus Garvey, Raboteau can find home in Africa. But in both
Ethiopia and Ghana, she finds the same mix of exaltation and humiliation
that America, Israel, and Jamaica offered. At one moment, Raboteau may
discover vibrant culture untrammeled by Western consumerism. But the
next, she may see some flash of ugliness, as African Americans show the
same colonial attitudes they claim to reject, or Africans demonstrate
shocking tribal intolerance.
in America, newly married and pregnant, an unplanned trip to the “Black
Belt of the South” provides Raboteau the insight she previously sought
overseas. Walking the same route across the Edmund Pettis Bridge that
Dr. King walked, sitting down to worship in King’s church, or gathering
for dinner with kinfolk displaced by Hurricane Katrina, she witnesses
moments of unadvertised hope. She sees strangers being the people. She
starts to feel home.
can tell you Raboteau’s conclusion right now, that Zion is not a place,
but that we make Zion every day, every moment, in the way we speak to
others, and share burdens, and make ourselves a people together. I can
tell you that, and you can contemplate it as a fortune cookie bromide.
But without knowing Raboteau’s context, without her journey of
discovery, the real meaning of Zion will prove as elusive to you as it
did, at first, for her.
struggle reflects that shared by most African Americans. But it is not a
race-specific quest. Most of us, either directly or through our
ancestors, came from somewhere else, have been somehow displaced, and
have known the feeling of alienation in the land where we were born.
Raboteau writes for all of us. If we have ever wondered at the concept
of home, and we have, Raboteau is a kindred spirit. Her walk is our
walk. And her final discovery is ours.