Emily Raboteau: Interview

Join us on Tuesdays, Jan 7, 14, 21, 28, Feb 4, 2020, 630-8pm, when One Book One Bronx starts an exploration of Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora by Emily Raboteau. This book club is free and open to the public. Click here to join

Emily Raboteau and Searching for Zion 
by Clarence V. Reynolds

Award-winning writer Emily Raboteau was twenty-three when she started the research for her recently published book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), for which she traveled through parts of five nations. Zion is a geographical place: In Jerusalem, it is both a holy realm and homeland for Jews. Raboteau’s project looks at Zion another way—as a metaphor for liberation in the African Diaspora, both as a hope for homeland and a state of spiritual enlightenment.

Raboteau, who teaches writing at City College in New York, talked about the genesis of her book and shared personal stories of her decade-long travels and ideas of Zion during a program presented by Kweli Journal, in partnership with The New York Times African Heritage Network. Following her conversation with poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, Raboteau generously answered a few questions for Mosaic.

CVR: You stated that among the things that inspired you to write Searching for Zion was the fact that you were interested in what the metaphor for Zion means in the African Diaspora and, on a more personal level, you were searching for a way of finding and talking to your father. Would you care to explain more about the things that motivated you to begin this project? How did you happen upon this broad topic for a book?
Emily Raboteau: Yes, I see the book as engaging and extending my father’s scholarship.  He’s a historian specializing in African-American religion.  I had an understanding through his work but also through the lyrics of some Negro spirituals and reggae songs such as “Go Down Moses” and “Iron, Lion, Zion,” of Zion as a black metaphor for freedom. After encountering and writing about two groups of black Jews in Israel — the Ethiopian Jewry (so-called “Falashas”) and the African Hebrew Israelites (so-called “Black Hebrews”) — and the exoduses they had made to get to the Holy Land, I found I wanted to continue writing along this theme.  I then sought out other black communities that had left home out of feelings of disinheritance to find the “Promised Land” elsewhere using the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Exodus as motivation.  My subjects included Rastafarians from the Caribbean living in Ethiopia, African-American ex-pats living in Ghana, Hurricane Katrina transplants from my own family, and others.  Their personal journeys, which were often about the retrieval of history, often sounded to me like the search of the orphan for a lost parent.

CVR: After ten years of journeying, how would you describe Zion for yourself?
Raboteau: If I may continue to think of Zion as a metaphor for liberation, then I would describe it as a place I aspire to enter daily, rather than a place on a map where I might arrive.  The Promised Land that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of right before he died was not a country.  It was an ideal striving for human relationships, for caring about the freedom of others as much as we care about it for our individual selves or for our discrete communities.  My quest wasn’t actually about identity, but about faith.  I struck out when I was twenty-three looking for a place to belong, but I was asking the wrong question.  It shouldn’t have been, “Where is my home?” but “What can I do for others?” This may sound obvious, but it took me until I was thirty-three and had trotted half the globe to come to such an understanding.  Putting that understanding into daily practice is the harder part.

CVR: As you were globe-trotting and conducting research for Zion, you were probably also writing your novel, The Professor’s Daughter. Can you explain the thought processes of doing two different projects around the same time and was there any connection between the two as your were working on them?
Raboteau: I spent ten years (from age twenty-three to thirty-three) conducting the travel and research that led to Searching for Zion.  Then I spent about another year crafting what I had learned into a book.  (I wrote the bulk of the book in Amsterdam while pregnant with my first child.)  I wrote my first novel, The Professor’s Daughter, during those years of travel in my mid-twenties. In fact, I finished it while living in Brazil.  One connection between the two works is my interest in the world beyond the contiguous United States. Parts of my novel take place in Ethiopia and South Africa; and the bulk of my memoir, which I think of as a travelogue, takes place abroad in parts of Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. Both books are also preoccupied with the different claims that black history makes upon individuals of African descent.

CVR: What message do you hope readers come away with after reading Searching for Zion?
Raboteau: I can’t help thinking of that satirical Wayans brothers’ movie Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, when I hear the word “message.” You may remember, every time there’s a message, like “I guess even though we were free, we were still slaves in the mind,” Keenen Ivory Wayans pops up as the mailman and cries, “Message!”

So I’ll just share one of the best pieces of wisdom I received during my travels.  It came to me in Jamaica from the amazing author and activist Thomas Glave.  He said that even if Jamaica could miraculously become for all its citizens the paradise it is for tourists, it would still fail to be paradise so long as other people in the world continued to suffer. As he put it: “An island of Zion is no Zion at all.” It was an important truth for me to hear, and so I shared it in my book for others to hear, too.

CVR: This question may sound like one asked earlier, but if someone were to ask you “Does Zion exist?” How would you answer?
Raboteau: We may think we are in Zion, but if our neighbors on the other side of the fence are not there with us, then we are deluding ourselves.  Enter the mailman: “Message!”