Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora

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A decade in the making, Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion takes readers around the world on an unexpected adventure of faith. Both one woman’s quest for a place to call “home” and an investigation into a people’s search for the Promised Land, this landmark work of creative nonfiction is a trenchant inquiry into contemporary and historical ethnic displacement.

At the age of twenty-three, award-winning writer Emily Raboteau traveled to Israel ...

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Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora

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A decade in the making, Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion takes readers around the world on an unexpected adventure of faith. Both one woman’s quest for a place to call “home” and an investigation into a people’s search for the Promised Land, this landmark work of creative nonfiction is a trenchant inquiry into contemporary and historical ethnic displacement.

At the age of twenty-three, award-winning writer Emily Raboteau traveled to Israel to visit her childhood best friend. While her friend appeared to have found a place to belong, Raboteau could not yet say the same for herself. As a biracial woman from a country still divided along racial lines, she’d never felt at home in America. But as a reggae fan and the daughter of a historian of African-American religion, Raboteau knew of "Zion" as a place black people yearned to be. She’d heard about it on Bob Marley’s Exodus and in the speeches of Martin Luther King. She understood it as a metaphor for freedom, a spiritual realm rather than a geographical one. Now in Israel, the Jewish Zion, she was surprised to discover black Jews. More surprising was the story of how they got there. Inspired by their exodus, Raboteau sought out other black communities that left home in search of a Promised Land. Her question for them is same she asks herself: have you found the home you’re looking for?

On her ten-year journey back in time and around the globe, through the Bush years and into the age of Obama, Raboteau wanders to Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the American South to explore the complex and contradictory perspectives of Black Zionists. She talks to Rastafarians and African Hebrew Israelites, Evangelicals and Ethiopian Jews, and Katrina transplants from her own family—people that have risked everything in search of territory that is hard to define and harder to inhabit. Uniting memoir with historical and cultural investigation, Raboteau overturns our ideas of place and patriotism, displacement and dispossession, citizenship and country in a disarmingly honest and refreshingly brave take on the pull of the story of Exodus.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Kim McLarin
…informative, heartfelt…In Giovanni's Room, Baldwin wrote, "I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home." Raboteau's Searching for Zion offers a different version of that journey, one that can take you somewhere important without leaving home.
Publishers Weekly
In this profound and accessible meditation on race, novelist (The Professor’s Daughter) and scholar Raboteau depicts her travels from Israel and Jamaica to Africa and the Deep South in search of the elusive African-American notion of “home.” Being both white and black, with an Irish mother and Southern-born black father, and growing up in Princeton, N.J., where her father taught African-American religion at Princeton, Raboteau had always felt “blackish in a land where one is supposed to be one thing or the other.” Raboteau looks at various scenarios of “home” for black folks and finds it’s never quite what they imagined it to be. For the slaves, for example, Canaan was due North, yet once they got there it didn’t prove to be a place of milk and honey. For her Jewish best friend, Tamar, “home” meant Israel, which institutionalized the Right of Return to any wandering Jew, even Ethiopians, yet Israel’s exclusion of Palestinians deeply unsettled Raboteau (“What kind of screwed-up Canaan has an intifada?”). For the Rastafarians, who look at their nation of Jamaica as a kind of Babylon, praying in the name of Bob Marley for One Love, as long as it excludes homosexuals, the Promised Land is Ethiopia, home of king Haile Selassie, whom many Rastafarians believe was a martyr. Yet among the Ethiopians and Ghanaians, Raboteau discovered unhealed wounds from racism, slavery, and economic inequality. Even among the devoted followers of the slick Southern preacher Creflo Dollar, the author never quite reconciled deep-seated unease about safety with faith, though her earnest, interior study is well worth the journey. (Jan.)
From the Publisher

"Lucid and ranging . . . A brilliant illustration of the ways in which race is an artificial construct that, like beauty, is often a matter of perspective."—The Wall Street Journal

"Brilliant . . . Raboteau's curiosity and keen intellect lead her to find more than she is seeking. . . . [Her] voice is as complex as her journey. Her descriptions are cogent and striking. Her irreverence and gumption provide comic relief."—San Francisco Chronicle

"This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking book. My head gets blown off on every page. Though it describes Raboteau’s very unique journey for her spiritual Zion, it’s somehow wholly universal, too. Everywhere she goes, she hopes to find some straight and golden thread that would draw a line in the direction home, but instead she finds a tangle of humanity that refuses to adhere to any tidy narrative. An African-American named Robert E. Lee who lives in Ghana. Ethiopian Jews who find Jerusalem but not acceptance. And yet everyone she meets she renders with great deftness and empathy—a novelistic level of detail and understanding. I doubt there will be a more important work of nonfiction this year."—Dave Eggers

“Raboteau has written a poignant, passionate, human-scale memoir about the biggest things: identity, faith, and the search for a place to call home in the world. Searching for Zion is as reaching as it is intimate, as original as its old soul. I didn’t want to put this beautiful book down.”—Cheryl Strayed

“An instructive read . . . ‘You don’t stomp on any permanent ground if you’re between black and white,’ Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow, tells [Raboteau] in Ghana. ‘You don’t have no grounds as a half-caste.’ But there is a definite arc to Raboteau’s book, and in her way, she proves Rita Marley wrong. She finds the ground she wants to make her own, and she sinks her roots there.”—The Boston Globe

“[Raboteau’s] detailed depictions flash with insight and beauty. A section on slave tourism in Ghana is frankly fascinating, as are the sections on visiting Birmingham, Ala., and Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.”—Los Angeles Times

"Informative, heartfelt . . . The rigor of Raboteau's journalistic work and her candid self-assessment . . . [are] thoughtful, well-researched, and deeply fascinating."—The Washington Post

"Extraordinary . . . Beautifully written."—

"Vivid . . . Ambitious . . . Frank and expansive."—Chicago Tribune

"An exceptionally beautiful and well researched book about a search for the kind of home for which there is no straight route, the kind of home in which the journey itself is as revelatory as the destination. Go on this timely and poignant journey with Emily Raboteau and you will never think of home in the same way again."—Edwidge Danticat

"I burned through this eye-opening book, utterly engaged with Raboteau’s search—which is, after all, everyone’s search. Raboteau presents a self full of contradictions, smoldering energy, and the willingness to lay it all bare. Searching for Zion is a glorious meditation on what it is to be alive."—Nick Flynn

"Wholly original . . . Prepare to have your understanding of Zionism turned on its head."—Catherine McKinley, author of Indigo

“No quest for home is ever limited to a simple place, and [Raboteau] evokes that reality beautifully. . . . A fresh perspective [on the] elusive concept of home.”—Kirkus Reviews

"Profound and accessible . . . Her earnest, interior study is well worth the journey."—Publishers Weekly

"Part political statement, part memoir, this intense personal account roots the mythic perilous journey in [Raboteau's] search for home. . . . Candid, contemporary . . . Never self-important, this is sure to inspire [a] debate about the search for meaning, whether it concerns 'the din of patriotism' or the lack of closure."—Booklist

Library Journal
A well-regarded novelist, the biracial Raboteau considers the concept of home by probing both her own effort to fit in and, more broadly, the hunt for Zion—the Promised Land—which has specific meaning for Africans and the African diaspora as well as for Jews.
Kirkus Reviews
Rather than a simple analysis of where scattered Africans ended up geographically, Raboteau (The Professor's Daughter, 2006) dissects the search for home as a search for belonging. No quest for home is ever limited to a simple place, and the author evokes that reality beautifully by focusing on the spiritual aspect of the search for many of African descent. In this way, she gives the diaspora both historical and contemporary context. As a mixed-race woman, Raboteau embodies the quest for a sense of self, and she explains her personal dilemma early on. "I didn't think of myself as the ‘tragic mulatto,' straight out of central casting," she writes. "The role was an embarrassing cliché from a dusty, bygone era, but I struggled against it all the same. If Barack Obama could transcend it, why couldn't I? I belonged nowhere. I wasn't well. Was the sickness my own, my country's, or a combination of the two?" Stories of her disaffected youth spent with a Jewish friend lead easily into the beginning of the author's global search party. Her first travels took her to Israel, where she learned of a large community of black Jews from Ethiopia. From Israel and the Jewish faith, she moved to explore the Rasta faith in Jamaica and then in Africa. Raboteau explored other issues of identity in Africa, as well, including African-Americans who settled in African cities and the genesis of trans-Atlantic slavery. The author never shies away from the difficult questions surrounding her--e.g., the Rasta worship of a dictator or the inherent double standards of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her head-on confrontation of these subjects makes the book easier to digest, and her treatment of the issues results in the unwritten conclusion that none of the communities she visited truly accomplished what they set out to do. In the end, the author found her answers in a way that many will see coming, but Raboteau approaches the conclusion from a fresh perspective that keeps it from feeling stale. An excellent choice for readers interested in religion, philosophy and the elusive concept of home.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802120038
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/1/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 693,816
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Emily Raboteau is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Professor’s Daughter. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best African American Fiction, The Guardian, Oxford American, Tin House and elsewhere. Recipient of numerous awards including a Pushcart Prize and a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, Raboteau also teaches writing at City College, in Harlem.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 7, 2013

    Raboteau's quest to define her concept of home as a biracial wom

    Raboteau's quest to define her concept of home as a biracial woman is powerful, beautifully written, and alive with detail. Her descriptions of life in Israel, Jamaica, and the American South are by turns funny and painful, but always vivid. And she deftly manages two challenges that most memoirists have real trouble with: she is honest and open, even when showing herself in an unflattering light, and she moves beyond her own story to bring us into the lives of the people she meets along the way, generously letting them each take center stage in turn. This book is going to stay with me for a long time.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2013

    Truly awesome book

    I loved this book. I started reading the book and couldn't put it down. I wanted to know where Emily was going next, who she was going to encounter, whether the expats she encountered had found their "Zion" and, in the end, whether and how Emily found her home. Her story and experience will resonate not only with African-Americans, bi-racials, but also for others who find themselves searching for who they are and where are they from, where is their "home". I loved her she interweaved history, culture, religion and current events--it was a making of a magical quilt.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 22, 2013

    As I've probably mentioned before, I used to manage a couple of

    As I've probably mentioned before, I used to manage a couple of Black bookstores back in the day. And besides being able to do my favorite thing, talk about books all day long, I also learned so much about Black history, African history, and the many cultures within the African diaspora. I came to meet Rastafarians, Hebrew Israelites, Muslims and felt my world become bigger because of it. 

    Raboteau, the biracial daughter of a Princeton professor of religion, grew up hearing about the concept of "Zion" and the promised land as it relates to the African-American experience. Her childhood best friend was a Jewish woman who relocated to Israel, a place considered "home" for her people and visiting her, comes across a community of Black Jews while in Israel and she begins to take an interest in other black communities who have set off from their place of birth to find their Zion or Promised Land. 

    Her journey finds her in contact with Black Hebrew Israelites who left America to establish a home in Israel, Ethiopian Jews who have done the same, and Rastafarians who have relocated to their spiritual home of Ethiopia. In visiting these communities and hearing the stories of the seekers, she also reflects on her own need to find a "home" and where she, as a half black woman, belongs in the world. Although this memoir tends to go off the rails at times, it was in the interest of providing historical context to Raboteau's experiences. Quite a unique memoir.

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