Friday, April 26, 2013

Americans, African Americans, and the Long Road Home

Emily Raboteau, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora

Like 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.

Raboteau’s 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.

Her 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.

But 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 throughout history.

This 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.

Many 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.

Perhaps, 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.

Back 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.

I 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.

Raboteau’s 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment