On the African Diaspora and the Search for Zion

Haaretz speaks to Emily Raboteau, author of ‘Searching for Zion'.

David B. Green
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Emily Raboteau, Author of 'Searching for Zion.'
Emily Raboteau, Author of 'Searching for Zion.'
David B. Green

The first trip Emily Raboteau took abroad was to Israel. She was 23 at the time, and the second intifada was raging. But her best friend from childhood had made aliyah a few years earlier, and Raboteau wanted to visit her. As the daughter of a black father (Prof. Albert Raboteau, an expert on the religious life of African Americans) and a white mother, who had identified as much with the Jewish culture and rituals of her friend Tamar as she did with African-American culture or her parents’ Catholicism, Raboteau was searching for a spiritual home.

During that and a subsequent visit to Israel, as she describes in her new book, “Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora” (Atlantic Monthly Press; 320 pages, $25), she spent time both with recent immigrants from Ethiopia and with the Black Hebrew community in Dimona, hoping to learn about their relationship to their adoptive country and to the very concepts of “Zion” and “Promised Land.” Those encounters led Raboteau, who today is an associate professor of English at City College of New York, to travel as well to Jamaica, where she sought out devotees of Rastafarianism, who view the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Later, she visited a colony of Rastas who immigrated to Ethiopia, which believers see as the black man’s Zion, as well as Ghana, which was the first Sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence from European colonial rule, and which to this day is a magnet for black Americans looking for a way to connect to their African roots.

Raboteau’s account of her travels is personal and revealing, as she describes how her encounters with various communities of seekers helped her understand and refine her own personal quest for identity. Haaretz spoke with Emily Raboteau via Skype from her home in New York.

Your book is pretty hard to sum up, but if I were to try, it seems that the journey you take, looking for a “promised land,” progresses from being a geographical expedition to something more personal and internal.

That’s right. The book at large is about where the African diaspora, as opposed to the Jewish Diaspora, locates the Promised Land. For black people, Zion has always been a synonym for freedom. Sometimes that’s been expressed as a geographical realm, such as Harriet Tubman’s Northern destinations along the Underground Railroad or Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement; or as a political condition, as in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of civil rights. Sometimes it’s understood as a metaphor for heaven itself, as we hear in so many Negro spirituals, or as an idea of capital, as we see in the prosperity gospel of some black evangelical mega-churches. On another level, the book is about my own personal quest for that place – Zion. For me that turned out to be, as one of the Rastas I talked to in Jamaica put it, “an inward place” – a spiritual feeling of belonging.

My journey started in my early 20s, when I traveled for the first time to Jerusalem, where my best friend had made aliyah. I fell in love with the city, in spite of its turmoil, and was jealous of my friend’s ability to make it her home. This was during the second intifada. Israel seemed a mess, but so did the U.S. I was so surprised to discover black Jews in Israel that I wanted to know how they got there. That visit sent me on this geographical quest. How many black people had left home out of old feelings of disenfranchisement to find home elsewhere? I traveled across five countries seeking out black Zionist communities to see if they found what they were looking for. Along the way, I discovered, through the mouths of many different people, that message about looking inside. But the further I traveled, I also started to feel that the travel itself was a kind of “Zion,” if I may also use that term metaphorically.

'Searching for Zion,' by Emily Raboteau.

Why travel?

For me, travel is the ultimate expression of freedom. I grew up biracial in a country still rigidly divided along racial lines. It was hard to feel I belonged, because I couldn’t be easily identified as black or white. I found it liberating to leave that binary framework behind, to realize I was the citizen of a larger world. In a way, it was also refreshing to discover that every country I visited had its own unique sectarian and racist leanings. But I could see that others were seeking, striving and struggling too, and this made me feel less alone, that I belonged everywhere.

I was impressed by the bravery it took many of my subjects to leave a negative story behind. At least that was what these exoduses were supposed to be about – leaving the land of captivity for a prouder shore – although it’s true that many maintained identities of victimhood in the new place.

Many of the Rasta in Shashamene, Ethiopia, for example, are living in a late 1960s bubble, a time capsule of the era when they left the Caribbean. The Ethiopians refer to their section of town as “Jamaica,” like they’ve imported the old place into the new place. But to be fair, Ethiopia is a hard place to assimilate into. And if you lost the talk of oppression, the Rastafari faith would lose its sense of drama and tension altogether.

Why do you think the Exodus narrative, and the idea of “Zion,” has so much resonance for blacks?

It’s a creation myth. For those Africans who were enslaved, who belonged to different tribes and spoke different languages, the shared experience of bondage yoked them together, and it was this story that gave them peoplehood. They felt deep kinship with the Hebrew slaves suffering under Pharaoh, and hoped they too might journey to freedom. My father wrote a seminal work called “Slave Religion” [1978], about the importance of Exodus to slaves in the Americas. His work was a strong influence on my own. According to his scholarship, the Book of Exodus is really the bedrock of black Christianity. For the people I was interested in studying, like Rabbi Arnold Ford, who converted to Judaism in the 1920s, it’s a story that enables them to be righteous possessors of a homeland, God’s elect, rather than victims or outcasts. I think it confers great hope and also a kind of honor, to perceive oneself as one of God’s chosen people.

What’s the role of Bob Marley in this narrative? Is he the prophet?

I would say that many Rasta consider him to be a prophet of the Rastafari faith. He’s certainly the most popular voice of reggae, and the face of Rasta. He was able through song and lyric to express something very holy – that all people, who share “one blood” and “one heart” should fight oppression. That message has universal appeal. Reggae music, under Marley’s influence, is one of the most popular types of music in the world. At the end of Kevin McDonald’s recent documentary film “Marley,” as credits are rolling, you see shots from different cities around the globe – you’re following a rickshaw or a taxi or a person on the street in Japan, India or Brazil, and in each case, someone’s listening to Bob Marley. And so many of his songs refer to Zion. For the book, I felt I needed to know more about the recurring leitmotif of Zion in reggae music, and the links between Rastafari and Judaism. That’s why I went to Jamaica.

As readers, we are as surprised as you are by the anti-gay attitudes of the Rastafarians you meet in Jamaica. Did Bob Marley also have a problem with gays?

It’s possible that he did. I’ve never read or heard anything explicitly homophobic coming from him, but he was a man of his time and place, and Jamaica, like so many other places, suffers from a rampantly homophobic culture.

It was also hard to take in the idea of the Rasta literally believing that Emperor Haile Selassie was the Messiah.

They believe he’s an incarnation of Christ. It’s troubling, given his history as a dictator, under whose rule hundreds of thousands of poor Ethiopians starved to death. But when I talked to these men about why they revered him, I could also understand the importance of having a godhead and symbol who looked like them, someone close enough in history whom they could witness and be moved by. When he was crowned in 1930, some blacks in the Americas saw the coronation as fulfilling a prophecy made by Marcus Garvey that a king would come out of Africa who would grant their redemption. Ethiopia already had a strong currency in the black imagination as a holy place referenced again and again in the Bible, most notably in Psalm 68:31. During Selassie’s rule, Mussolini tried to conquer Ethiopia as an Italian colony, but ultimately failed, making Ethiopia the only uncolonized nation on the continent. So the Rastas also see the former emperor as having vanquished the oppressive evil of colonialism. They also point to the incredible strides he made for the country by creating an airline, highways, hospitals, a university. They look at this as Christ-like behavior. He himself was surprised to be seen as God, but he didn’t do much to dispel the perception.

You refer several times in the book to the murder of your grandfather in 1943, clearly a trauma that still afflicts the family, but you give very few details. Is that because little is known, or because family members won’t talk about it?

I don’t have many details, because there were no witnesses. The white man who shot him was never prosecuted. I guess that every family has a secret and this was ours. My father wasn’t told about the murder until he was 18. His mother didn’t want him to grow up hating white people, and she moved with him and his sisters from Mississippi to Michigan to get away from Jim Crow. It was a dark, sad scar in the family, but at same time, it was always there, a palpable absence, the paterfamilias who was violently stolen from us. My grandfather came to symbolize something larger – a ruptured and almost unspeakably painful black history. The search for home, as I understood it, felt like the search of an orphan for a lost parent.

You describe the draw that black Africa has for African Americans, and the roots trips that many make, particularly to Ghana, which encourages such visits. Have any African countries organized anything like the Birthright trips to Israel, to create a sense of identification among young American blacks?

I don’t believe so. Certainly not to the degree that you have it with Israel, though Ghana’s Ministry of Tourism recently renamed itself the Ministry of Tourism and Diasporan Relations as a nod to the popularity of roots tourism. One of its efforts was to shift the perception among Ghanaians of African Americans as wealthy tourists to long-lost brothers and sisters. But here’s another irony. African Americans who have a desire to connect with Africa are often surprised to find that Africans just want to go to America, in search of economic opportunity. Each has a romance with the others’ experience. The Americans are looking for healing, and the Ghanaians for jobs. It was pretty shocking for me, as an American to hear a Ghanaian say that slavery was just a “small story.” Of course, he was both wrong and right. Slavery is not a small story. But it is only one among many.