Quiet as it’s kept, some of us colored-girl creative-writer types kept our cool circa 2006 when that gelato-dripping, Gita-flipping, Bali-bossa-nova-ing best seller Eat, Pray, Love went multi-multiplatinum. We did not hate, because we knew the truth: we too binge, chant, and passionately blur the pages of our passports with so many stamps from Senegal, Salvador, Kerala, and KwaZulu Natal. Deep bow to Sis’ Gilbert, and not to sound too much like Brother West, but the Age of Obama requires a different set of quests and questions, and in Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, Emily Raboteau marches upward and outward, back and forth across the Black Atlantic, asking away.
From Princeton to Jerusalem, Jamaica to Ethiopia, and Ghana to the Gulf Coast, Raboteau queries those she encounters and invites us along to wander and wonder what it means and where it leads when black folk say we want to go home. Do we mean a spiritual home, an ancestral home, or some recognizable stone that refused to be blown away by Hurricane Katrina? And once we “advance, advance,” as the Garveyites used to sing, to ancient promised lands or new Jerusalems, are we welcome or do we still feel like strangers, sufferers? “How long?” the psalmists cried, and the historian in Raboteau provides a sketch of just how long her transmigrating, Zion-seeking comrades, as far back as Paul Cuffee and Martin Delany, have engaged similar questions. Still, this book comes most alive with her real-time, real-life, right-now conversations in Ital eateries, hotel jazz bars, mega-church pews, zigzagging bead shops, and at family reunions over bread pudding.
Can we go home at all if we are Jamaican and gay? the author asks her former writing teacher, Thomas Glave, founder of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays (J-FLAG). While her Rasta comrades, just pages before, insist on the inclusive, divine “we” of the expression I’n’I, Glave can only respond in the singular: “Jamaica is for me an ancestral and psychic home…. But I feel incomplete and not at home here because not all of my person is welcome. I’m vulnerable to murder as a person whom others feel they have a right to kill.” Can we become Ethiopian if our father was a West Indian rabbi from Harlem? In Addis Ababa, Raboteau asks this question of Abiyi Ford, the son of Rabbi Arnold Ford, who composed the anthem that began each gathering of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and who, in the 1930s, migrated with members of his synagogue from Harlem to Ethiopia. Abiyi Ford’s response provides one of my favorite passages from the book:
I like to say I’m African by heritage, Barbadian by parentage, Ethiopian by birth, British by registration, American by naturalization, and Ethiopian by repatriation. I disbelieve in geographic location. Here is my proof: you cannot tell me where Africa ends.
Raboteau liked his answer too, but admits to squirming when he asks her what she is. The biracial daughter of renowned African American professor of religion Albert Raboteau Jr., Emily answers, “I’ve never liked that question.” Ford chides her a bit as a fellow wandering hybrid, and admits it’s a trick question. He then concludes, “My prognosis is that you’re still looking for home.” Raboteau replies, “Good grief, is it that obvious?”
Emily Raboteau mentions early on in the book that she inherited her sense of displacement from her father, so it is poignant that she concludes her final chapter side by side with him, driving “home” to a family gathering in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. By this point, we’ve learned that father has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and daughter is recently married and expecting a baby: “His hand is on the wheel. My hand is on my belly…. We’ll be there soon. We’re not there yet.” This final road trip to the Gulf Coast caps a ten-year period of travel beginning with her first trip to Israel at age 23. One can only imagine that somewhere along the line her publisher must have also asked of this book, “What are you?” Womanist travel writing? Africana ethnography? Father/daughter memoir? Comic mulatta coming-of-age in the Age of Obama romance? Whatever it is, I like that she grows. I like that she becomes increasingly aware of her privilege to be “free as a sparrow,” able on the turn of a chapter to fly from Jamaica to Ethiopia when so many generations of Rastas could never afford that flight, or even to buy an apartment in New York, however “run-down” and furnished with a “thrift store” loveseat. Her listening grows deeper and much more patient over the decade, and the lessons she learns from someone like Kati in Accra, the Hungarian ex-wife of a Ghanaian engineer (“If you float, the water can carry you to fascinating places!”), or from Raboteau’s cousin Tracy in Atlanta (“But what I want you to know about Katrina that you can’t learn from the news is the reserves of goodness”), grow more meaningful too. And goodness, she finds, is not the place, not the destination, not the promised land; goodness is in the journeying, the listening, the alive and grace-filled space I’n’I experience between soon and not there yet.