If home is a concept a child might visually articulate in, say, six quick lines, by adulthood it's a notion much more diffuse — a shape-shifter, a Rorschach blot.
In her frank and expansive new memoir, "Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora," Emily Raboteau in essence fans out series of interpretive Rorschach blots, images gathered on an ambitious journey around the globe. She displays them end to end, like a storyboard: Each impressionistic, deeply personal vignette is a building block, detailing her far-flung search for "home" — a "promised land" that's as brick-and-mortar tangible as it is spiritually confirming.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
The "Zion" referenced in book's title is less place than metaphor. The narrative cracks open with Raboteau in fierce battle in Israel, not at the frontlines, but at a security checkpoint. She's in mid-exchange over her identity — or rather the elusiveness of it. It's a vividly evoked argument, all flint and flare. Her exasperation is on the brink of landing her in the sub-basement of deep-freeze.
The airline inquisitors can't "read" her — not her expression, but her ethnicity. Her ethnic elusiveness trips them up; the affront pushes her into a psychologically propelling journey: "I have never felt so black in my life as I did when I was mistaken for Arab. Why was I so angry?"
Raboteau, a biracial woman — her white mother was of Irish descent, her father was an African-American professor — makes it clear from the outset that, beyond the neat perimeters of the familial, she has never felt quite at home, not in her soul, nor in her skin. "I was black — well blackish in a land where one is expected to be one thing or another. That is enough to set me apart."
Her airport scuffle is both an epiphany and a foreshadowing. It complicates an already emotional trip: a visit to reconnect with an estranged childhood friend. Quickly, though, a snaking sense of jealousy moves through: She's envious of the place her friend Tamar has found away from her, a "home" that appears to embrace her unconditionally: "While Black Zion was a wish, Israel was real," Raboteau writes. "So where was my home?"
The promised land or Canaan of Scripture and spirituals, of call-and-response sermons, of work songs that collectively pulled black people forward from slavery, tugged at Raboteau for years to follow. Post-9/11 New York fully reignites her sense of dislocation, when on home turf now she's mistaken as interloper and a victim of random street violence. That "black Zion" and its imagery was both a comfort song and promise, but where was this "place"? Could she map it? Could she buy a ticket to it?
It's an anxious hope that sends her spidering the globe — back to Israel, and then to Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, followed by a pass through the American Deep South — to talk to a sampling of men and women of African descent who had made this journey before her. She spoke with those who had risked all to find a place — or build one from ground up — that felt more welcoming. She understands the folly of it: "What kind of person travels so far to trace something as ephemeral as a feeling?" But she can't quiet the longing.
It's tough territory to trek — physically and emotionally — and though this excursion is personal, Raboteau adopts a semi-objective reporter's stance, equipping herself with the tools of the trade: a voice recorder, a camera, a set of questions prepped and ready. As she moves from continent to continent, she spends time knee-to-knee with elders, organizers, self-made businesspeople, hotel owners, holy men and women. So many of them had traded away or renounced something once vital to them — status, family, money, citizenship — to seek their own version of Zion.
Raboteau vividly and poetically evokes these far-flung visions of Canaan, among them that of the Beta Israelites, the Ethiopian Jews of Israel; African Hebrew Israelites, the African-American sect who made their own exodus, fleeing the United States in 1969 for Israel hoping to build a spiritual oasis in the Negev Desert; the Twelve Houses of Rastafari in Jamaica; and former Ethopian Emperor Haile Selassie's Shashemene, a piece of land opened as a gift to the African Diaspora, intended for the resettlement for all black people of the West.
Instead of harmony, Raboteau encounters dissonance: hierarchies and caste systems; poverty and violence. She collects a host of words or categories to describe those who don't belong: outsiders, interlopers, falashas ("landless ones"). Instead of outposts that encourage a more expansive vision of blackness, she finds "absorption centers" in Israel that stress assimilation. In lieu of the open-armed "One Love" beamed out worldwide from Jamaica, she finds that unconditional promise is not meant for everyone, particularly if you're gay. At one point, she uses the "privilege" of her light skin to "pass as other" to find out how her African driver in Ghana truly feels about the African-Americans who visit his county. "Only Black Americans come across the water to cry ... But all they do is criticize us." Slavery's wound is as wide as it is deep. Sitting in a sad living room in Ghana with a couple of expatriated elderly Americans whose goals didn't match up with the dream, Raboteau absorbs the wife's apology: "Sorry to take the moon and stars out of Africa."
Life's solutions are seldom geographical: Raboteau intuits this, but keeps fighting against it, which makes "Searching for Zion" less a book about place but faith. A search for a promised land isn't about seeking something singular, or fixed. What she learns from the survivors, those who persist, is that finding sanctuary is something personal and evolving. It's something out of the detritus, stick by stick. It's a navigational point that might not require a plane ticket, but it does require a journey.
Lynell George is an Los Angeles-based journalist and essayist.
"Searching for Zion"
By Emily Raboteau, Atlantic Monthly Press, 305 pages, $25
Celebrating the Nelson Algren Awards