Author Emily Raboteau and the cover of her new book, "Searching for… (Grove Atlantic )
Searching for Zion
The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora
Atlantic Monthly Press: 320 pp., $25
In 1965, author and civil rights essayist James Baldwin appeared at the Cambridge Union Society to debate William F. Buckley on the question "Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?" In a blast of eloquence, Baldwin answered in the affirmative. And in so doing, took up a question he was to return to again and again in his work: How can a country that tries to destroy you be home?
"Where is home?" is the question at the center of Emily Raboteau's "Searching for Zion." Prefaced with a quote from Baldwin and also bringing to bear the words of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and other civil rights leaders, Raboteau struggles with her own mixed-race heritage. (She has a black father and a white mother.)
Inspired by her childhood friend Tamar's aliyah (immigration) to Israel, she follows the black diaspora across the world to find her place in it.
Kicking off in Israel with the Ethiopian Beta Israel community — also known as the derogatory falasha — Raboteau journeys to an outpost of American black Jews in the Negev, then to Jamaica to seek the home-grown Rastafari, who say they are not "Jewish, but Jews." From there it's on to Ethiopia's "Jamaica Town," where expatriate Rastafari have built a community to worship their leader, Haile Selassie, and then on to the expatriate Americans living in the shadow of the slave holds — and current slave trade — of Ghana.
It is, to say the least, fresh territory. To trace the black diaspora's search for Zion through the lens of the Jewish one while at the same time revisiting the role race and religion play in Raboteau's identity is a new way to ask what price assimilation and who makes whom the outsider.
But Raboteau's lack of clarity on why her mixed-race heritage is difficult for her makes her own book unstructured, and her writing uneven. One moment she's being petulant about having to wear a head scarf while visiting the black Jews of the Negev and shocked that her trio of Jamaican gurus also evince wildly homophobic views. Conservative sects require modest dress. Jamaica is known as one of the most homophobic places in the world. A Columbia professor setting off to those regions should not be innocent of those facts.
Raboteau can come off as the worst kind of cultural tourist: an armchair sociologist whose own concerns prevent her from seeing the people right in front of her. "Searching for Zion" might have gone further into the role of Ethiopian art in Israel; the tribe of male Jamaican "Rastitutes"; the story of the white Spanish Jews who settled in Jamaica hundreds of years ago; Jamaica Town's blind worship of Haile Selassie. Instead, her writing can be tinged with the cold jargon of academe — "problematic" appears more than one would like — and if we didn't know any better, for the first half, we would think the black diaspora consisted of stoned, groovy ninnies.
There's a reason books about assimilation such as Nella Larsen's "Passing," Maxine Hong Kingston's "Tripmaster Monkey" and Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" endure — the question is relevant. Contemporary writers like Danzy Senna, Lise Funderburg, Bliss Broyard, Rebecca Walker and even Philip Roth have tackled it. For Raboteau to ignore them and focus only on civil rights-era thinkers is a missed opportunity. It's not enough to travel with pencils out, throwing out Wikipedia-like tidbits about Marcus Garvey's Black Star line in your wake.
And in fact, as Raboteau turns to her own present she gains authority, and her detailed depictions flash with insight and beauty. A later section on slave tourism in Ghana is frankly fascinating, as are the sections on visiting Birmingham, Ala., and Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
"The Professor's Daughter," her 2005 novel about a mixed-race teen searching the past for clues to her identity, similarly gained strength at the end; perhaps Raboteau always needs that space to find her own story. Next time, let's hope she makes her book start there. Then I think Raboteau — who, like Baldwin, continues to ask where home is — can give us as thumping an answer.
Skurnick is the author of "Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading." She's a contributor to the New York Times Magazine, NPR, Bookforum, Salon and other outlets.