“One day, your father says to you, ‘We’re going to Jerusalem.’ Imagine your surprise. You didn’t know it was a real place. You thought it was a dream as far away as the moon.”
Danny, the cab driver who speaks these words in Emily Raboteau’s second book, would probably be unmoved by this year’s selection of Yityish Titi Aynaw as the first black Miss Israel.
Aynaw, like Danny, belongs to the community of Beta Israel, a group of Ethiopian Jews whose full integration into Israeli society has yet to be realized in the eyes of many. In the conversation in Raboteau’s book, Danny calls the few Ethiopians he sees as visible in Israeli media mere “window dressing to complete Israel’s cultural menagerie.”
Is the myth of Jerusalem, the biblical Zion, real?
In an age of cynicism, we’ve come to expect that anything that aims to confront a myth will end up debunking it. So it goes with Emily Raboteau’s memoir, a book whose author-narrator does exactly that.
Raboteau embarks on a quest for the mythical Zion, that Promised Land, that place on Earth to which those exiled by the forces that created the African Diaspora can hope to return. This is that place towards which Negro spirituals beckon. It’s the antithesis of “Babylon” in the jargon of the Rastafarians, the place that nullifies the suffering of the New World and restores order.
This yearning for Zion has a distinctly Old Testament origin, born of an identification on the part of African-descended people with the biblical Hebrews. The physical reality of such Promised Land has always been in question, as Raboteau seems to verify by means of her exhaustive travels.
Still, don’t go into this book expecting a pessimistic conclusion. Although Raboteau doesn’t quite find satisfaction in the answers many of the communities she visits have found, there remains a radiant optimism here. The dream of a home does not evaporate, but refines, shifts.
Her journey takes Raboteau across both vast geographic space—she visits Ethiopia, Ghana, Jamaica, Israel and a number of locations in the United States—and equally vast internal landscapes, as she traverses not only her family history, but the collective yearnings of African-descended people as a whole.
If the ambition of such an effort seems staggering, and unlikely to fare well, Raboteau tempers the book’s broad scope by choosing to use an intensely personal lens, so that the reader remains always aware that even when the book asks questions of global import, it does so in the service of a truly individual, subjective yearning: the desire of one mixed-race girl to find ways of feeling less mixed-up in the world.
One of the book’s strengths comes with the deftness with which it handles issues of its own genre: memoir, to be sure, but with a weight that could be called journalistic and at times even borders on the academic. (How many recent memoirs come with a six-page bibliography?) Fittingly for a book about finding one’s place, this book seems to have successfully carved its own—one confident enough to defy conventional categorization.
By turns journalistic and confessional, Raboteau writes plain and earnest prose. As a traveler, she arrives wide-eyed, and as we follow her on her journey we become privy to clear insights. Raboteau is the daughter of religious historian Albert Raboteau, author of the seminal book Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South, and her father appears throughout the book as a figure of her admiration and awe. Think of the book itself in many ways an homage to his work.
As a self-identified African-American who appears white, Raboteau exists as an exile among exiles. The trope of the tragic mulatto has its place here, and Raboteau herself acknowledges that the work must wrestle with it. But the author’s position not only as biracial, but as someone whose appearance frequently gets her mistaken for ethnicities other than her own (she finds herself mistaken for an Arab in Israel, where she suffers humiliation at an entry checkpoint, and again in post-9/11 America, a victim of Islamophobia) amounts to a kind of double alienation.
Travels fail to ameliorate Raboteau’s sense of alienation. Inevitably, her search for belonging casts her into territory in which she occupies the role of outsider. In her visits to religious communities—the Hebrew Israelites (a religious sect of black Americans who see themselves as Jews, many of whom have settled in Israel); the Beta Israel; Rastafarians in both Jamaica and Ethiopia; and even Southern Christians in the United States—she frequently finds herself as a non-believer among believers.
In some of the more conservative communities, she seems to even occupy a kind of third sex—not a man, but able to enjoy the company of men; not subject to the rules of other women, but occupying a woman’s body. Ultimately the questions that her female body poses will provide some of the book’s most poignant scenes—as when she narrowly escapes assault at a birthday party for Haile Salaisse.
Raboteau displays a keen ear for dialogue and dialect, from patois of the Rastafarians she encounters in Jamaica, to the Irish brogue of her friend, novelist Nuala O’Faolain, to the preacher’s cadence of Southern mega-church pastor Creflo Dollar. The voices she gives to those she meets along her journey provide some of the book’s surest joys. The book resounds as deeply empathetic to those characters the narrator meets; we see them bound up with the book’s central question…that question of belonging.
At the same time she gives serious attention to the stories of others, however, Raboteau seems to play with the kind of distance she wants to take from her own story. She wrote her first book, The Professor’s Daughter, as a novel with strongly autobiographical tones. Here, she presents us with a memoir. It makes a serious attempt not only at journalistic objectivity but also at connecting the personal with the universal. The author chooses to address the complexities of privilege—how she can be a member of group oppressed at home but at the same time experience the privilege of her light skin, home and abroad? She can also experience the privilege of US citizenship, particularly when she travels to the global south.
More than these arises the question that Raboteau’s body of work asks only implicitly: is the act of writing itself a privilege, a luxury, and even in some ways an exercise in narcissism? This book seems to continue its writer’s struggle to find ways of approaching dilemmas her own biography has presented, but in ways that extend beyond the personal. From cloaking personal in fiction, she now moves towards finding the global experiences reflected in her personal experience.
Published in the 50th anniversary year of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Searching for Zion feels timely. This book about the spiritual longing for a homeland feels necessarily haunted by prophets and savior figures, King not least among them. (We meet Haile Selassie, and the unwitting Messiah of the Rastafarians, and the pan-Africanist hero Marcus Garvey.) Raboteau invokes MLK during her travels to Ghana, and returns to it in the city of his birth, Atlanta, this at the end of a bus tour through the American South and visits to monuments of the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery and Selma.
In Atlanta, Raboteau frames the prosperity gospel that fuels black mega-churches as one attempt to realize the American Dream.
The recent commemoration of the March on Washington, D.C., where President Obama addressed the nation, has given rise to one more opportunity to consider whether we’re any closer to realizing King’s Dream—and whether the black president himself is a fitting embodiment of that dream. Searching for Zion lends its voice richly to that conversation, by asking some of the same hard questions, then probing for answers.
Ultimately Raboteau answers by bringing that rambling dream—perhaps not really the dream of a just world, in the face of the mess mankind has made of history—to a more manageable scale.
Her work carefully positions her within a legacy. She inherits her father’s life work, but also builds something that will last beyond her. Married to novelist Victor LaValle, with whom she appeared on the cover of Poets and Writers in the late stages of their pregnancy, Raboteau clearly asserts her own desire to build a legacy.
Also interwoven into this memoir, she tells the story of finding a home in the family she builds with LaValle. “Maybe I hadn’t found the Promised Land,” Raboteau writes, “but what I did have seemed pretty damned good.”
I’m reminded of a Lauryn Hill song, “To Zion,” dedicated to her son of that name. The piece seemed an attempt to identify the coming generation with the Promised Land.
There’s plenty of room to wonder how all this—motherhood as its own Zion—reconciles with feminism. But with a book that unravels questions so wide, perhaps a neat, tidy ending—a sentimental one, but earnest—is better than no ending at all.
Chantal James is a DC-based writer. She has been the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship to Morocco and a Vermont Studio Fellowship in fiction. Follow her on Twitter @chantalalive