When Alex Haley chronicled his family’s lineage from the coast of Gambia to the chains of slavery in the United States in his sprawling 1976 epic Roots, America—particularly black America—took notice. With extensive research and interviews with family members, Haley was miraculously able to do what most black Americans could not and still cannot—trace back his heritage seven generations and a couple hundred years. Roots and the wildly popular miniseries of the same name influenced many people of all ethnicities to seek out their own familial backgrounds, in hopes of understanding where they came from, and where their true, spiritual home may lie.
Of course, as Haley’s friend Henry Louis Gates Jr. told the Boston Globe in 1998, “Most of us feel it's highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village whence his ancestors sprang.” The elusive fantasy of many black Americans of finding “home” speaks to how we all seek refuge in the images and ideas we hold of our ancestors.
In her memoir Searching for Zion, Emily Raboteau travels to several continents and countries—including Israel, Jamaica, and Ghana—seeking her own personal Promised Land. While Raboteau, whose mother is white and father is black, may not have been looking to trace her ancestors like Haley, the hope to find some connection to an unknown past rings with the same pang of truth.
Raboteau’s book is at once a memoir and an exercise in researching and reclaiming history. Throughout her travels, she writes candidly of her family’s past—particularly of the murder of her grandfather by a white man in Mississippi in the early 1940s—as well as her resentment over being perceived by others as ethnically ambiguous, leaving her with an intense feeling of displacement. The question Searching for Zion asks is bold and grand in scope: What and where is home, and how do people of color in particular—people who have often been displaced due to slavery, civil unrest, or willing expatriation—go about achieving inner peace?
Raboteau’s travels are sparked by a trip just prior to 9/11 to visit a Jewish childhood friend, Tamar, who moved to Jerusalem in adulthood. Despite the intense violence occurring in that part of Israel at the time and the emotional toll it took upon her friend, Raboteau felt envious—this was, after all, the holy place where Jesus was crucified and brought back to life. “All I understood was that she’d taken the opportunity to make this place her own,” Raboteau writes. “As complicated and confusing as that choice must have been, I felt enormously jealous of her ability to make it.”
Hers is an emotional struggle that most, if not all, black people face at one point or another. I confess to once feeling equally bothered that, unlike my Jewish friends who had the opportunity to go on Birthright and return to their “homeland” once they turned 18, I had no direct or spiritual ties to the continent—much less the country—of my earliest ancestors. As far as birth records and oral history from relatives are concerned, my family’s origins exist nowhere beyond the United States. Raboteau’s father is correct when he describes the hurt of realizing that America is not his Promised Land as a “black feeling.”
But being black does not mean that I couldn’t attempt to make Jerusalem or any other place my new “paradise” if I wanted to. As Tamar informs Raboteau on this first visit, there are a handful of black Americans who have done so already, as well as blacks from other nations as well. On her return six years later, she encounters a Jamaican Rastafarian, who, like others of the faith, believes he is a descendant of Ethiopia and considers the one-time Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie to be the Messiah. There are also the Beta Israel—Ethiopian Jews who have been recognized by the Israeli Rabbinate since the 1970s, allowing them to emigrate under the Law of Return—many of whom have not found Jerusalem to be the beacon of hope they may have imagined it to be. Forced to shed their religious and cultural identities in order to gain full Jewish status and Israeli citizenship, many Ethiopians, particularly of the younger generation, have become disenchanted with their expatriation. Teenagers embrace the Western ideologies of black pride through rap music and Bob Marley rather than Israeli or Ethiopian culture. “The Jamaican searches for Ethiopia,” Raboteau writes. “The Ethiopian searches for Israel, arrives, then searches for Jamaica. And I, the so-called African American, search for what, exactly?”
Raboteau had to visit several continents over the course of a decade to fully accept the fact that she had to find this peace on her own. For blacks of my generation, such travels may not be necessary. By the 1980s, the names given to girls born in a black California neighborhood were 20 times more likely to be common among blacks as opposed to whites. (In the 1970s, they were only twice as likely.) I wasn’t born in California, but I was a product of the ’80s and had a father who gave me and my younger sister distinctly African first and middle names despite the fact that at the time he had no idea what country our ancestors were torn away from, much less what tribe or what language they spoke.
Though I love my name and would never think of changing it, meeting and making friends in college with first- and second-generation students who were from Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria only magnified how disconnected I am with the diaspora. In my mind, they are true African-Americans; I now identify myself solely as a black American. As Mary Ellen, an American woman exiled to Ghana with African studies professor John Ray in 1976, tells Raboteau, “I’m not African. Four hundred years away made me something else.”
For a time, like Raboteau, I was bothered by these feelings. But eventually, I learned to latch on to what I did know of my background, thanks to my father’s reconstruction of our family tree and the recollections of relatives from my mother’s side. It’s probably no coincidence that it is during Raboteau’s trip to the American South—the place of her grandfather’s horrific death—that she finally begins to come to terms with her feelings of incompleteness. It is a trip that includes stops at Selma, Ala.; Montgomery, Miss.; and finally Decatur, Ga.; where family on her father’s side now resides after being displaced from Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. Raboteau’s cousin Tracy lived through a harrowing Katrina experience and now accepts the fact that the only place she’s known is no longer her home. The resiliency of Tracy, and her insistence that they are survivors, not victims, humbles the author and challenges her understandings of what “home” can really mean.
Almost all of the cast of colorful characters Raboteau encounters on her travels are disillusioned with the place they chose to call home. Finding paradise isn’t as simple as it seems. A man Raboteau meets in Ethiopia comfortably describes himself as a hybrid of genealogical and geographic roots—including Barbadian, American, and Ethiopian. He insightfully advises her that Zion can only be found once you “transcend false compartmentalization of humanity into black/white, Muslim/Jew.” Being free or at peace with one’s sense of self cannot be found via a geographic location or ethnic identity: Zion is a myth, a frame of mind, and a place you can’t get to on a plane.
Searching for Zion by Emily Raboteau. Atlantic Monthly Press.