By David F. Evans
A review of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, Emily Raboteau, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013, 320 pp.
Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora is an intimate journey into a vast array of longings for a utopian homeland. These longings find their most common expression in the hope for the land of promise, Zion. Often Raboteau’s communities express this hope religiously, but even when the hope is not expressed with overtly religious language their desire for a homeland cannot be mistaken. The reality of home historically eluded the grasp of descendants of Africa throughout the Western world, so they put their faith in a mythical Zion of distant lands. Like the flood victim in Bessie Smith’s song “Backwater Blues,” who felt the floodwaters had called her “to pack my things and go,” the oppression that the African diaspora suffered under white supremacy incited many communities and individuals to seek safety in the promise of a foreign place. In this way, the metaphor of Zion is an African utopia, but the theme of home and belonging transcends the African diaspora and speaks to all who feel out of place and long to go.
Much of this longing, at times “shapeless, persistent and intrusive,” is represented in Raboteau’s own experience. The daughter of a black father and a white mother, Raboteau offers the reader her own desire for home as a lens. Her father, Albert Raboteau, a prominent professor of Religious studies and one of the most important scholars on African American religion, serves as her muse. Through her own story, the reader begins to understand that U.S. American society has often understood people only insofar as they recognizably fit into the binary racial categories of black and white. Raboteau, a mixed race person, does not fit into that U.S. racial binary–and she has the scars to prove it. From the moment Israeli security personnel interrogate and strip search her before a flight to Israel, to the time she is assaulted by the flying bottle of a drunk man in New York City—a place where the people she views as kin see her as an Arabic threat to Western civilization—she experiences rejection from her own nation. In this context, she expresses a deep longing for a connection to a place and people. Her Jewish childhood friend finds that place and people in Israel. It’s in Israel, where Raboteau encounters black Jews, that she embarks on her own journey through which the reader meets a cast of sojourners whose visions are simultaneously beautiful and terrible representations of the elusive search for home. Zion is, as one Rastafarian shares with Raboteau, “an inborn place.” Thus, the journey necessarily ventures through the complexities of self-identity and belonging.
Raboteau successfully avoids what she describes as the “ridiculous cliché ‘the tragic mulatto’ whining about not belonging.” Her mixed race identity, however, makes her physical presence a perpetual site for inquiry. As she puts it, “My mixed race had made me a perpetual question.” Nearly each new encounter begins with the question, “What are you?” As she narrates such experiences, she reminds the reader that her search is situated in a tradition that has made the self a legitimate site for intellectual reflection. At times her narration reads similarly to W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic Soul’s of Black Folk. It is no overstatement to say that in Du Bois’ text is perhaps the most appropriate comparative example, in style and content, of an African American author who uses the self as a lens through which to understand a land and a people. In his essay “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” Du Bois suggested that his presence always provoked the unuttered question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” Like Du Bois did in the U.S. South, Raboteau reveals her own curiosity, and sometimes terror, in order to provide the reader with insight into five communities of the African Diaspora: Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the U.S. Southern Black Belt.
Raboteau’s quest is much more anthropology than autobiography. While her own vulnerability provides an essential entryway into the journey, her book transcends her own story. She makes clear that while she too has a stake in the quest, the story she tells is not solely her own. Rather, she studies the elusive Zion from the perspectives of those who dwell in the mythical lands of promise. Searching for Zion is a reminder of the spiritual romanticism and existential disappointment that one finds in searching for home in a land far away. She writes, “At its root, my quest wasn’t about identity, it was about faith.” This faith might best be described as a belief in the future as articulated in the multi-geographical experiences of the communities she visits; a spiritual and political faith, but not necessarily a religious one. While some communities welcomed her into explicitly religious rituals, others made only political proclamations. Each in its own way, however, persistently directed her back to her own faith journey for answers.
Her upbringing, liminal racial status, and gifts as a storyteller enable her to narrate what will undoubtedly become an important text for students in Religious Studies, African American Studies, African American Religion, and Intercultural Studies courses. For example, she grasps the historical significance that no other utopian myth of the African Diaspora had a longer tradition than the one found in the African American romance of Ethiopia. For at least a century, Ethiopia became the symbolic representation of the homeland for African Americans like David Walker, Maria Stewart, Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley, and Marcus Garvey, to name a few. The fact that most African Americans’ ancestry is West African rather than East African mattered not in the nineteenth century. In Raboteau’s study, twenty-first century Rastafarians also idealize the Ethiopian cradle of civilization. Taking the romanticization of Ethiopia a step further, Rastas venerate the deceased Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie as the political incarnation of Christ. Neither their faith in Ethiopia or Selassie, however, is anything like the reality Raboteau finds in the Zion of Rastas in Ethiopia. This Zion was always wet and full of poverty. More importantly, the repatriated Rastas could not stomach the idea that their Christ had severely oppressed his people and that their land of Zion, Shashemene, never lived up to the lofty expectations they had had for it.
Shashemene was not unique in this regard. Raboteau finds reasons for disappointment in every supposed paradise. Many Ethiopian Jews carried disdain for Palestinians, many Jamaican Rastas cared nothing for gays and lesbians, the Rastafarian community in Ethiopia had little sense of purpose. That said, Raboteau saves her most poignant articulation of disenchantment for Ghana. When Raboteau arrives in the land that welcomed African American professionals like W.E.B. Du Bois, the repatriated African Americans she encounters express frustration, fatigue, and a desire to return to the U.S. Ghana, a site of spiritual pilgrimage for many African Americans searching to be connected to their enslaved ancestors is, quite disappointingly, also on the list of countries with high rates of human trafficking of women and children. The land that should remind African Americans of progress, that slavery is a problem of the past, is today a nation with a slavery problem. She finds that Africa, even West Africa, is not Zion but another myth.
Raboteau’s search for Zion leads her right back to where she started, the United States of America. The U.S. Southern Black Belt, in the wake of hurricane Katrina and the election of the first black President, brings the reader full circle to a people cast as refugees in a land that is supposed to be their own. As Bessie Smith concluded in “Backwater Blues,” even though the disasters of life called me to “pack up my things and go,” at some point, she laments, “I can’t move no more. There ain’t no place for a poor old girl to go.” For those who have been rejected by the society of their citizenship, Raboteau’s search reveals that home is an elusive concept. When home becomes a utopian vision grounded in the religious imagery of Zion it may be an impossible destination. In the end, one wonders if the search for Zion is a search for a promised land or a search for self? After reading Searching for Zion, perhaps it is safe to conclude that it is both. Raboteau’s text gives voice to the quest for belonging and as such is a twenty-first century contribution to the ongoing struggle for peoples displaced by the modern problem of race. It suggests that the struggle is a journey, one that requires faith to persistently believe there’s a homeland for everyone, even if we have yet to find it.
David F. Evans is the Assistant professor of History and Intercultural Studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, VA. His teaching and scholarship makes visible the, often invisible, oppressive racial and religious ideologies that have annexed Christian communities to nationalist systems. In concert with his teaching and scholarship, he practices a local “eco-lutionary” lifestyle that promotes a sustainable future for the diverse people of the Shenandoah Valley Watershed.
cover image from The Forward, via http://forward.com/articles/169812/where-black-and-jewish-identity-merge/?p=all