Searching for Zion: Emily Raboteau’s Hunt for the Promised Land

A writer set out to find the mythical ‘promised land’ of the African diaspora. Emily Raboteau speaks to Mindy Farabee.

Mention the notion of Zion, author Emily Raboteau notes, and most people will think almost automatically of Israel. But for citizens of the African diaspora, Zion, with its promised land of abundance and freedom from oppression, has carried profound cultural significance since the days of slavery, when the saga of Hebrew slaves fleeing Egyptian captors served as a galvanizing narrative.

In Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, Raboteau’s self-described “strange admixture” of travelogue, cultural anthropology, and historical study, the author uses this promised land as a point of departure, lighting out for Israel, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Ghana, and the post-Katrina American South to talk to immigrants and others who have wrestled with displacement.

In many ways, Raboteau went in search of her own elusive sense of belonging as well—the themes of unsettled racial identity that ripple through her work owe a debt to autobiography. The daughter of an interracial couple—her father is African-American; her mother of Irish descent—the author has already spent a lifetime grappling with other people’s perceptions. “It was like this identity trumped that one in a way,” she says of her African-American heritage. “It almost feels like, in America at least, that that’s a choice that is often made for you.”

Her new book likewise stumbles across complications everywhere. In this edited interview below, she talks about family ghosts, the other side of heritage tourism, and the state of Zion today.

You write a lot about the historical link African-Americans felt with Jews of the biblical exodus. How does this concept of Zion resonate today?

Barack Obama used the Zion metaphor in the 2008 election, in particular when speaking to faith-based groups. He configured himself as Joshua, who in the biblical story was the one who led the Israelites into the promised land, not Moses, who never made it there himself. That was Obama’s way of acknowledging that he stood on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, who was a sort of Moses figure, and how much he owed to history of civil rights on his path to the presidency.

But there’s another thought I’ll add to contemporary uses of the metaphor. I was disturbed towards the end of my journey to find that message of the black church in many ways feels like it’s transformed since the era of civil rights, where Zion was used as a metaphor for freedom, to one where Zion is often used as a metaphor for capital—or rather where freedom equals capital. We hear this in the prosperity gospel of extremely popular televangelist preachers in the black evangelical tradition, though it’s not only a black tradition. The preacher I became obsessed with was Creflo Dollar, though there are others. T.D. Jakes is another. When they talk about the promised land, they talk about it being a condition of freedom from debt and of ownership, a nice car, a nice home. Initially, I felt like it was a really crass transformation. But then I had to question, what is the purpose of liberty? When you’ve achieved a degree of equality, what comes after that? I think for a lot of people, a natural extension of that is, well, I want a piece of the pie. It came to feel in some ways like a forward-thinking message that was liberating for a lot of members of those congregations. Rather than a backward looking one, where Zion had to be an idea of the afterlife ... because it wasn’t really discovered in the ways that had been hoped for.

In Middle Passages, James Campbell writes “When an African-American asks ‘What is Africa to me?’ he or she is also asking ‘What is America to me?’” After your travels and the experience of writing the book, how did your personal relationship to the U.S. and your mixed-race heritage evolve?

I realized that every country I traveled to was as politically fraught, as sectarian or as racist, in its own way, as ours, and that was as liberating a discovery as it was a depressing one. I felt like Dorothy when she gets to Oz and realizes that the wizard is just a sad little man putting on a show. That’s what it felt like to go to Ethiopia and visit these Rastafarians who thought they would find the promised land, and in fact were living in a squalid little town ... Now, looking back on the journey I took, it almost feels naive that I could have ever thought of Zion as anything other than a metaphor.

Heritage tourism to Africa has grown exponentially, beginning in the 1990s. What would you say to someone about to go on such a trip?

When I took my visit to the slave castle, the driver who brought me there from Accra, the capital, was a young Ghanaian man who was very distressed with African-American tourists who come on such tour packages. He didn’t perceive me as African-American because of my racial ambiguity, and so he felt very free to talk about the sort of snobbery he perceived, a kind of hypocrisy that he felt with these black Americans coming, claiming to be part of a larger African family, and also complaining about Ghana for being the Third World country that it remains. Even telling Africans how to do things better than they do ... I guess I would say to someone going in, go in with open ears. That narrative that may have brought you back to Ghana, that is, to redress a kind of hurt, is not the overriding narrative of the Africans on the other end.

Of you and your Jewish friend Tamar, you write, “We were raised on diets of pride, not victimhood. Still, there were powerful ghosts in our houses.” How much is this a story about race and place, and how much about family?

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I think to a large degree. There are a number of places in the book where I allude to my own grandfather’s death. Although I have limited factual information about his murder, we know that he was shot to death by a white man, who was never prosecuted, in Mississippi in 1943. My father was still in utero when the murder occurred, so he never knew his father. My grandmother then moved north with her children to save them from Jim Crow. They were part of movement of 6 million African-Americans who made such journeys during the great migration. All of them, whether they moved to cities in the Midwest, in the Northeast, or in the West, were hoping to discover that mythical promised land, the land of milk and honey. There was a way that I think I, personally, inherited the pain of that loss from my father. It was a rupture in our genealogy that came to serve as a metaphor for larger losses in black history.

You talk about envying Tamar’s ability to emigrate to Israel, her spiritual homeland. Is belonging to a diaspora a particular kind of belonging?

If we go back again to why [the Zion] story matters so much to black people in the West, it’s because there wasn’t really much tying them together when they got here to slave on the plantations, except for the condition of being in bondage, because they were coming from different nations, different tribes; they worshiped different gods; they spoke different languages. In a sense, what gave them peoplehood was this story. And it wasn’t the story of slaving under Pharaoh, but the story of entering into the promised land, the story of liberation and hope that drew them together ... This is why I said I appreciated not being raised on a diet of victimhood. Tamar and I felt Jewish and black, not because of all the bad things that had happened in history, but because of some kind of sense of hope and pride, and even destiny ... It’s a hero’s story.