Emily Raboteau was 23 the first time she was racially profiled, but it was a strange sort of profiling. Headed to Jerusalem to visit her childhood best friend, she presented a pigeonholing quandary for the security staff of the airline El Al, who wanted to make sure she didn’t pose a threat to the state of Israel but couldn’t figure out where her people came from.
“The United States” was not the answer they were looking for. “Before that,” they DEMANDED. “Your ancestors.” She resented their inquiries into her ethnicity, they objected to her recalcitrance, and she ended up being strip-searched.
The humiliation seems only to have goaded her to a heightened longing for a place in the world that would accept her as a member of the tribe, the way Israel did her friend simply because she was Jewish. The hunt for such a place — by Raboteau and others — is the subject of “Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora,” which unfolds over a decade that takes her to Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Ghana, and the American South, each journey chronicled in a section.
The daughter of a white mother, to whom she dedicates the book, and a black father, about whom she obsesses throughout the book, Raboteau had a privileged upbringing in Princeton, N.J. Her father, she notes with an Ivy League hyper-attention to rank, is “Princeton University’s Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion.” But growing up, she says, she felt “never quite black enough or entirely too black.”
“I was blackish in a land where one is expected to be one thing or the other,” writes Raboteau, whose autobiographical debut novel, “The Professor’s Daughter,” published in 2005, explores some of the same themes she addresses in “Searching for Zion.”
One gets the feeling that Raboteau’s need to lay public claim to the African branches of her family tree — the slave forebears, the grandfather murdered by white men in Mississippi in 1943 — has a lot to do with the fact that she looks like someone who has no right to that heritage. Her friend, the late Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain, once urged her to visit Ireland, the home of her maternal ancestors. “Have you had a look at yourself of late, love?” O’Faolain asked. “How in Jesus’s name can you call yourself black?” But Raboteau, embracing her blackness, feels shame for her “terrible whiteness.” She is looking for the Promised Land, and in a sense, for her father, too — somewhat like Barack Obama with “Dreams from My Father,” except that Raboteau, also a child of divorce, has known her dad all her life.
On that first trip to Israel, she is heartened to learn of the existence of black Jewish communities, whole groups who have severed their ties elsewhere to immigrate to Israel. In Jamaica, she wades into Rasta culture. She follows that trail to Ethiopia, where some black Westerners have “repatriated.” Then on to Ghana, which once upon a more glorious time drew W.E.B. DuBois to renounce his American citizenship. But everywhere Raboteau goes, everywhere that the diaspora has gone before her, poverty and disillusionment are the common lot. The newcomers tend to be looked upon as interlopers. In most of these places, women do not fare well.
“Searching for Zion” is an instructive read when its focus is on history and religion. But Raboteau is a naïve narrator. She’s stunned to find virulent homophobia in Jamaica. In Ghana, she’s initially unaware that slavery still exists, then resists recognizing it when it’s right before her eyes. Her privileged self-involvement can be staggering. In the section of the book chronicling her trip to Ethiopia, she makes such persistent mention of the cold she’s developed that one begins to wonder whether she’ll fall grievously ill. The genuine triviality of her complaint does not seem to occur to her even when she encounters a desperately poor woman with a 6-year-old child. “Abu’s mother was alive but sick,” she writes, “her body wracked by a hacking wet cough far worse than my own.”
In Ghana, a septuagenarian American who badly wants to go home tells Raboteau she understands her search. “You can’t help it, Emily,” the woman says. “You’re obviously a romantic; otherwise you wouldn’t have come. Ghana attracts a lot of dreamers. Funny thing, since this country is so inhospitable to dreams.”
Romanticism often bleeds into melodrama, and in melodrama things look black and white: People are either saintly or satanic, places edenic or evil. That perspective is a hazard of youth, and it’s one that Raboteau seems to outgrow.
“You don’t stomp on any permanent ground if you’re between black and white,” Rita Marley, Bob Marley’s widow, tells her 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.Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.