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

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

by Emily Raboteau

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802120038
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 01/01/2013
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About 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 creative writing at The City College of New York in Harlem.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Do You Know Where Canaan Is?

The security personnel of El Al Airlines descended on me like a flock of vultures. There were five of them, in uniform, blockading Newark International Airport's check-in counter. Two women, three men. They looked old enough to have finished their obligatory service in the Israel Defense Forces but not old enough to have finished college, which meant they were slightly younger than I. I was prepared for the initial question, "What are you?," which I've been asked my entire life, and, though it chafed me, I knew the canned answer that would satisfy: "I look the way I do because my mother is white and my father is black." This time the usual reply wasn't good enough. This time the interrogation was tribal. They questioned me rapidly, taking turns.

"What do you mean, black? Where are you from?"

"New Jersey."

"Why are you going to Israel?"

"To visit a friend."

"What is your friend?"

"She's a Cancer."

"She has cancer?"

"No, no. She's healthy."

"She's Jewish?"

"Yes."

"How do you know her?"

"We grew up together."

"Do you speak Hebrew?"

"Shalom," I began. "Barukh atah Adonai ..." I couldn't remember the rest of the blessing, so I finished with a word I remembered for its perfect onomatopoetic rendering of the sound of liquid being poured from the narrow neck of a vessel: "Bakbuk."

It means "bottle." I must have sounded like a babbling idiot.

"That's all I know," I said. I felt ridiculous, but also pissed off at them for making me feel that way. I was twenty-three. I was a kid. I was an angry kid and so were they.

"Where is your father from?"

"Mississippi."

"No." By now they were exasperated. "Where are your people from?"

"The United States."

"Before that. Your ancestors. Where did they come from?"

"My mother's people are from Ireland."

They looked doubtful. "What kind of name is this?" They pointed at my opened passport.

I felt cornered and all I had to defend myself with was my big mouth. It was so obviously not a time for joking. "A surname," I joked.

"How do you say it?"

"Don't ask me. It's French." There was a village in Haiti called Raboteau. That much I knew. Raboteau may once have been a sugar plantation, named for its French owner, one of whose slaves may have been my ancestor. It's also possible I descended from the master himself. Or from both — master and slave.

"You're French?" they pressed.

"No, I told you. I'm American."

"This!" They stabbed at my middle name, Ishem. "What is the meaning of this name?"

"I don't know," I answered, honestly. I was named after my father's great-aunt, Emily Ishem, who died of cancer long before I was born. I had little idea where the name came from, just a vague sense that like many slave names, it was European. My father couldn't name anyone from our family tree before his great-grandmother, Mary Lloyd, a slave from New Orleans. Preceding her was a terrible blank. After Mary Lloyd came Edward Ishem, the son she named after his white father, a merchant marine who threatened to take the boy back with him to Europe. To save him from that fate, Mary shepherded her son to the Bay of St. Louis where it empties into the Mississippi Sound. There he grew up and married a Creole woman called, deliciously, Philomena Laneaux. They gave birth to my grandmother, Mabel Sincere, and her favorite sister, Emily Ishem, for whom I am named.

"It sounds Arabic," one of them remarked.

"Thank you," I said.

"Do you speak Arabic?"

"I know better than to try."

"What do you mean?"

"No, I don't speak Arabic."

"What are your origins?"

I felt caught in a loop of the Abbott and Costello routine, "Who's on first?" There was no place for me inside their rhetoric. I didn't have the right vocabulary. I didn't have the right pedigree. My mixed race had made me a perpetual unanswered question. The Atlantic slave trade had made me a mongrel and a threat.

"Ms. Raboteau! Do you want to get on that plane?"

I was beginning to wonder.

"Do you?"

"Yes."

"Answer the question then! What are your origins?"

What else was I supposed to say?

"A sperm and an egg," I snapped.

That's when they grabbed my luggage, whisked me to the basement, stripped off my clothes, and probed every inch of my body for explosives, inside and out. When they didn't find any, they focused on my tattoo, a Japanese character. According to the tattoo artist who inked it, the symbol meant "different, precious, unique."

I was completely naked, and the room was cold. My nipples were hard. I tried to cover myself with my hands. I remember feeling incredibly thirsty. One of them flicked my left shoulder with a latex glove. "What does it mean?" he asked. This was the first time I'd been racially profiled, not that the experience would have been any less humiliating had it been my five hundredth. "It means 'Fuck You,'" I wanted to say, not merely because they'd stripped me of my dignity, but because they'd shoved my face into my own rootlessness. I have never felt more black in my life than I did when I was mistaken for an Arab.

* * *

Why was I so angry? As a consequence of growing up half white in a nation divided along racial lines, I had never felt at home in the United States. Being half black, I identified with James Baldwin's line in The Fire Next Time about black GIs returning from war only to discover the democracy they'd risked their lives to defend abroad continued to elude them at home: "Home! The very word begins to have a despairing and diabolical ring." Though my successful father, Princeton University's Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion, was an exception to the rule that black people had fewer opportunities, and though I had advantages up the wazoo, I remained so disillusioned about American equality that much of my young adulthood was spent in a blanket of low-burning rage.

I inherited my sense of displacement from my father. It had something to do with the legacy of our slave past. Our ancestors did not come to this country freely, but by force — the general Kunta Kinte rap of the uprooted. But it had even more to do with the particular circumstances of my grandfather's death. He was murdered in the state of Mississippi in 1943. Afterward, my grandmother, Mabel, fled north with her children, in search, like so many blacks who left the South, of the Promised Land. It was as if my father, whose father had been ripped from him, had been exiled. My father's feelings of homelessness, which I took on like a gene for being left handed, were therefore historical and personal. And truthfully, because he left my family when I was sixteen, my estrangement had also to do with the loss of him. My family was broken, and outside of its context, I didn't belong. The El Al security staff had turned up the flame beneath these feelings. At twenty-three I hadn't seen much of the world. I hadn't yet traveled beyond the borders in my own head.

But now I was boarding a plane to visit my best friend from childhood, Tamar Cohen. With Tamar, I had a home. We loved each other with the fierce infatuation of preadolescent girls — a love that found its form in bike rides along the towpath, notes written in lemon juice, and pantomimed tea parties at the bottoms of swimming pools. The years we spent growing up in the privileged, picturesque, and predominantly white town of Princeton, New Jersey, where both of our fathers were professors of religious history, were marked by a sense of being different. Tamar's otherness was cultural: her summers were spent in Israel, her Saturdays at synagogue, and, up until the seventh grade, she attended a Jewish day school. I was black. Well, I was blackish in a land where one is expected to be one thing or the other. That was enough to set me apart. I didn't fit. I looked different from the white kids, different from the black. My otherness was cultural too. I played with black dolls, listened to black music, and, thanks to my parents if not my school, learned black history.

Being "different" allowed Tamar and me to hold everyone else in slight disdain, especially if they happened to play field hockey or football. We were a unified front against conformity. We stood next to each other in the soprano section of the Princeton High School Choir like two petite soldiers in our matching navy-blue robes, sharing a folder of sheet music with a synchronicity of spirit that could trick a listener into believing that we possessed a single voice. When I received my confirmation in Christ at the Catholic church, I borrowed Tamar's bat mitzvah dress.

We were bookish girls, intense and watchful. We spent afternoons sprawled out on my living room rug doing algebra homework while listening to my dad's old Bob Marley records — Soul Rebels, Catch a Fire, and our favorite, Exodus. Our Friday nights were spent eating Shabbat dinner at her house around the corner on Murray Place. I felt proud being able to recite the Hebrew blessing with her family after the sun went down and the candles were lit: "Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam ..." Blessed are You, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe ... I didn't actually comprehend the words at the time, but I believed the solemn ritual made me part of something ancient and large.

Perhaps stemming from that belief, much to my father's chagrin, I started to keep kosher, daintily picking the shrimp and crab legs out of his Mississippi jambalaya until all that remained on my plate was a muck of soupy rice. It was her father's turn to be upset when we turned eighteen and got matching tattoos on our left shoulder blades. The Torah forbids tattooing (Leviticus 19:28). Tamar's might someday disqualify her from burial in a Jewish cemetery but we were determined that, no matter where in the world we might end up, no matter how much time might pass, even when we were old and ugly and gray, we would always be able to recognize each other.

Tamar's father was an expert in medieval Jewish history, while mine specialized in antebellum African American Christianity. Both men made careers of retrieving and reconstructing the rich histories of ingloriously interrupted peoples. Tamar and I knew at a relatively young age what the word diaspora meant — though to this day that word makes me visualize a diaspore, the white Afro-puff of a dandelion being blown by my lips into a series of wishes across our old backyard: to be known, to be loved, to belong.

Our fathers were quietly angry men, and Tamar and I were sensitive to their anger and its roots. I was acutely aware of that grandfather I had lost to a racially motivated hate crime under Jim Crow, though my father didn't discuss the murder with me. He didn't need to give words to my grandfather's absence any more than Tamar's father had to give words to the Holocaust. We were raised on diets of pride, not victimhood. Still, there were powerful ghosts in both our houses.

A few years after the Crown Heights Riot, my father brought Tamar and me to an exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. In collaboration with the NAACP, it linked Jewish and African American experience. Our trip must have fallen during Passover because I can remember nibbling on matzo and leaving a trail of unleavened crumbs. Klezmer music played in a room showcasing a silver candlestick bent by a bullet in a Russian pogrom. The next room displayed photographs of lynched black men. In each of those men's tortured faces I saw my grandfather, and I found myself on the verge of tears, more from outrage than from sadness. "Go Down Moses (Let My People Go!)" issued from the speakers:

When Israel was in Egypt's land,
Let My people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let My people go!

Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt's land;
Tell old Pharaoh To let My people go!

"I like this music better than klezmer," Tamar said. I trained my ears on the lyrics I knew so well. They soothed me, just as they are meant to.

"This is a liberation song," my father explained. "Do you girls know where Canaan is?"

"Israel," Tamar answered.

"In a sense. But that's not the place this song is about. Look." He pointed to a picture of Frederick Douglass with an attached quotation that read: "We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan."

My father told us that afternoon how pivotal the Old Testament story of Exodus and the Promised Land was for African slaves in America, whose initial embrace of Christian tradition was born out of kinship they felt with the Hebrew slaves. They found hope in the scriptures about Moses, the trials of the Israelites, and their journey from bondage into Canaan. "I'll meet you in de mornin', when you reach de promised land: on de oder side of Jordan, for I'm boun' for de promised land ..."

"Maybe that's why you like this music, Tamar," my father finished. "When we sang freedom songs about the ancient Israelites, we linked ourselves to you. Our people have much in common."

Tamar and I nodded in agreement. We were connected by histories of oppression, but more than that, we both had soul. In addition to appreciating the right music, having soul meant that when you witnessed a poster for the auction of a thirty-year-old slave woman named Mary or a yellow star pinned to the little brown coat of a nameless child, what you felt was not guilt but rather the itch to smash your fist into somebody's face. Tamar was my soul sister. I didn't see her as white any more than I did my own white mother, who was, simply, my mother. So it didn't confuse or surprise me when Tamar suddenly turned to me in choir practice one rainy morning in April 1992, when the Los Angeles Riots were burning on the other coast, to proclaim, "I'm not white."

We had been rehearsing the Spanish cellist and conductor Pablo Casals's sacred motet, Nigra Sum, whose Latin text is taken from the Song of Songs and reads:

Nigra sum sed formosa filiæ Jherusalem
I am black but comely, daughters of Jerusalem,

Ideo dilexit me rex
Therefore have I pleased the Lord

Et introduxit me in cubiculum suum.
And he hath brought me into his chamber.

I thought I understood why she made her proclamation at that moment in choir practice. "Nigra sum sed formosa" brought tears to my father's eyes when we sang it a few weeks later at the spring concert. It was deep and rotund, darkly contralto, heavy-bottomed, bluesy. It was a song you wanted to be about yourself.

Tamar and I parted ways for college. While I was busy reading Hurston, Ellison, and Wright and working with inner-city youth in a program modeled after the Black Panthers, she was busy writing a thesis on Jewish history and practicing her Hebrew with foreign students from Israel. Either we followed stricter identity codes or the codes became stricter as we grew. Neither of us became joiners, per se. She didn't attend Hillel Society, nor did I hang out at the Afro-American Center. But her new best friend was an Israeli named Sari, and mine, a half Nigerian called Nkechi. We called each other less and less. Shortly after we graduated, she moved to Israel and became a citizen under the Law of Return — aliyah — which is the right all Jews have to settle there with a visa, providing they aren't perceived a danger to the state. The millennium passed. We hadn't spoken in months when she phoned at the start of the second intifada to ask me to visit.

Her voice surprised me. It had a desperate timbre. I decided to go.

After I made it through the degrading security check and the longest flight I'd ever taken, I fell in love with Jerusalem. I'd expected to land in a desert place, hostile and khaki and hard as a tank, because that's what I'd seen on TV and because El Al's staff had been so aggressive at the airport. The armed patrolmen on every corner fit my mind's picture, but the beauty of Jerusalem did not. I wasn't prepared for it to look so much like San Francisco. Tamar led me through that ancient city of soft hills and olive trees, bulbous rooftops and rock-jumbled valleys. Its limestone buildings blushed in the sunset and the air over Mount Zion was as delicate as gauze. I followed her down endless narrow lanes where Arab kids rode donkeys and kicked rubber balls. We no longer shared the same references and private jokes, but we still remembered songs from the repertoire of our high school's choir. We sang these as we walked.

Jerusalem contained more different visions of heaven than any other city; everyone brought his or her own dream of paradise. It was dizzying to walk simultaneously where, supposedly, Muhammad had ascended to heaven to meet with God, Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, and Solomon had built the First Temple — and also where, any minute, a bomb might go off.

I'm in Zion, I thought. This is it. I'm actually here.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Searching for Zion"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Emily Raboteau.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part I Israel: We're Going to Jerusalem

1 Do You Know Where Canaan Is? 3

2 The Land of Oz 24

3 Tezeta 38

4 Transitioning 48

Part II Jamaica: Belief Kill and Belief Cure

5 Home to Roost 63

6 The Twelve Tribes 70

7 Roots Reggae 87

8 "An Island of Zion Is No Zion at All" 101

Part III Ethiopia: As Long as There Is Babylon, There Must Be Zion

9 Jamaica Town 111

10 Sons and Daughters of Ethiopia 127

11 I Land 150

12 Birthday of the Patriarch 164

Part IV Ghana: Who Will Inherit You When You Die?

13 Daughters of Obama 183

14 "Nigganese" 196

15 Kindly Pass to the Next Gate 211

16 Points to Ponder When Considering Repatriating Home 233

Part V Black Belt of the American South: This Is the Place You Were Delivered

17 A Dollar and a Dream 249

18 Holy Week 260

19 Survivors 278

20 Ishem 290

What People are Saying About This

Edwidge Danticat

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 (author of Brother I'm Dying and Create Dangerously)

Cheryl Strayed

Emily 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 it is old soul. I didn’t want to put this beautiful book down.

—Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild)

Dave Eggers

This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking book. My head gets blown off 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 (author of A Hologram for the King and Zeitoun)

Nick Flynn

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 (author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City)

From the Publisher

"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

"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."—Good.com

"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

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Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
LisaBatyaFeld More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
mshoni More than 1 year ago
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.