Homeland Security

A child from the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalemcommunity in Dimona, Israel, 2005.
A child from the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem

community in Dimona, Israel, 2005.

A few years after she graduated from college, Emily Raboteau received a phone call from Tamar Cohen, a close friend from childhood. Cohen had relocated to Israel, and she longed for a visit from one of her oldest friends. Over the years they had grown apart, so Raboteau didn’t know what to make of Cohen’s request, but she tells us, “Her voice surprised me. It had a desperate timbre.” Raboteau decided to go.

Ten years after Cohen’s call comes Searching for Zion, Raboteau’s account of five African diasporic communities that left one homeland to find another. The idea first suggested itself to her during that initial trip to the Holy Land: As she traveled, she learned that many black Jewish people have made use of the law of return to move to Israel. Questions soon latched themselves to her own longing and rootlessness: Who were these black Zionists? Had their arrival in Zion finally brought them all that they were searching for? And above all, what does it mean to actually find your Promised Land?

To confront those questions, Raboteau left her home in Harlem to journey around the world. She went south to Atlanta to interview family members from Mississippi who had moved there after they’d been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. In Atlanta, she found that the liberation theology of the civil rights movement had been perverted into holy-roller high capitalism by megachurches in America’s fastest-growing black metropolis. She looked on as parishioners made their tithes rain on their pimp-shoe-wearing prosperity preacher, Creflo Dollar. She tracked the Rastafari movement’s appropriations of Zionism to Ghana, to Bob Marley’s house in Jamaica, and to a Rastafarian colony in Ethiopia. And she returned to Israel to track down the black Zionists she had heard about on her first trip. There she found two communities: the Falasha Ethiopian Jews and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem. This latter group is the largest population of black Americans living outside of the country—many of them are former residents of American inner cities driven away from conditions of material and moral decay. They practice polygamy, wear bright robes, and cure themselves of the ills of their past lives by eating vegan diets. In Israel, they live without citizenship, but many of their children fight for the Israel Defense Forces.

“So this is Canaan Land?” Raboteau asked their leader, Dr. Khazriel.

“‘I was born into a Detroit ghetto,’ he answered, biting into a slice of . . . melon. He wiped the juice from his chin and grinned. ‘If I wasn’t here, I would be dead.’”

Raboteau’s father is a black man from Mississippi—and a scholar of African-American religion—while her mother is Irish American. In Raboteau’s face this mixed lineage reveals itself as what she calls the “profile of a mutt, a Rorschach, a ghost.” Her skin is olive, her hair is straight, and her nose is narrow. She is a mixed-race woman who’d “always felt” African American, but to others she can look white, Latino, Indian, or Arab. Her face sometimes brings her harm. She describes being attacked in New York City shortly after 9/11, and she was subjected to a humiliating security search while trying to travel to Israel because of her ambiguous ethnicity.

As IDF soldiers interrogated her, she was snarky, defiant even. “I tried to cover myself with my hands. I remember feeling incredibly thirsty,” she writes. Their inquisition into her identity and ethnicity was an additional violation—intimate, dismissive, sharp with indifference. These were the questions she was already struggling with; she did not want to speak with strangers about her own nagging sense of homelessness, about her sense that she is at times a cipher even to herself. “I have never felt more black in my life,” she writes, “than I did when I was mistaken for an Arab.”

In Searching for Zion, Raboteau’s sense of racial homelessness produces many similar moments of displacement—and she uses them to question the thing-in-itself nature of being black in America now. She recalls being heckled—or congratulated?—for being “a daughter of Obama” while walking the market streets of Ghana. While our president is in many ways an obvious frame for a book like this, Raboteau makes the wise decision to keep him, for the most part, at a narrative distance.

Instead, Raboteau opts for more finely grained stories and the quotidian exchanges among the people she meets. Because Searching for Zion is so tied to this material, Raboteau avoids the myopic approach of the many pundits who have grifted on our arrival into an allegedly postracial era. This approach conveniently avoids explaining how their black existentialism, this new apparent privilege, trickles down. But Raboteau seems to recognize that her own past won’t permit such easy and evasive gestures. She is still haunted by the specter of her grandfather, a black man whose life was violently cut short by a hate crime in Mississippi—as James C. Anderson’s was in 2011—for no other reason than the color of his skin. And this family history keeps Raboteau clearly aware of the ways in which we remain a country that is still worrying some very large bones about what home and displacement really mean. For many Americans, home is still where the hatred is.

Raboteau also recounts sitting with her father in Miss Maude’s Spoonbread Too Restaurant in Harlem, and fretting to him that her entire private quest for identity relegates her sense of estrangement to the realm of cliché. She worried that she might be misapprehended as just updating the “ridiculous” and rather exhausted narrative of what she calls “the tragic mulatto.” While Raboteau’s resistance to the tragic-mulatto archetype is understandable—the stigma of the genre is summed up in the offensive nature of its very name—it’s regrettable that we are so reluctant to look back, even to the first books that dealt with mixed raciality in America. This refusal has diminished our engagement with the vanguard and thoughtful writing done in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by authors such as Mark Twain, Jean Toomer, Charles W. Chesnutt, and Nella Larsen.

In the way that Raboteau uses her own uncertainty to shape her understanding of what it means to be black now, she calls to mind the anthropological dimensions of Zora Neale Hurston’s more complicated writings on the gradations of race and class in black American life. Raboteau convincingly conveys her subjects’ struggles and failures as a piece of her own, and handles their stories with a remarkable amount of care and generosity. She is not at all content to sing merely a song of herself, nor does she revert to the idea that the interracial experience is akin to American exceptionalism. In her reluctance to make her angst easy, she has written herself into this older tradition that strives for complexity rather than shrinks from it.

And yet, while Searching for Zion triumphs as a book about a crisis of being, it has difficulty at times achieving a tone or mood that feels uninhibited, or truly far-flung. In the Atlanta chapter, Raboteau can come across as too introverted to relate deeply with her own family. The same holds true for the black evangelists she describes: It is as if she is more comfortable dealing ideologically with these issues than with the flesh-and-blood people who articulate them. In her the chapter about Jamaica, Raboteau describes attempting to snitch on some middle-aged, drunk Dutch tourists in the Bob Marley Museum, to the museum’s tour guide, Natalie.

“Those ladies are shitfaced,” I whispered to Natalie. It was ten o’clock in the morning.

“At least they’re having fun,” she admonished. “Are you?”

Indeed, for all Raboteau’s understanding of the various tributaries of race and identity born out of the African diaspora, Searching for Zion occasionally becomes bogged down with obvious subject matter—and Raboteau’s predilection for skimming on the surface of issues that might elude her. In the Jamaica section, for example, there is far too much Bob Marley, and curiously almost no mention of the country’s fascinating former prime minister Michael Manley—a mixed-race leader whose socialist reforms sought to create a more progressive Jamaica for all of its citizens. Despite such occasional oversights, Searching for Zion remains an evocative record of the psychological quest for a homeland. For as much time as the book spends on the road, it’s ultimately within Raboteau’s own head, trapped within the motions of her thoughts, where her vision is most singular.

In the place of any firm conclusions, she delivers a meditation on her own homecoming: A newly married Raboteau is sitting next to her father in a rented car on US Route 90 racing past the fading swamps and Spanish moss to a family member’s birthday party in Mississippi. Her father drives. Both of them are quietly worried about the recently discovered cancer growing inside of him. They hope that this trip will not be their last. He is unaware that his daughter is a few weeks along with child. In the trunk, the mother-to-be has stored an angel painted on a piece of wood that she purchased in New Orleans to hang over this child’s crib. “We are distressed magical thinkers,” Raboteau writes.

We are left with the image of that car carrying that angel, these magical thinkers. They are a knot of bodies, memories, and dreams, an American family. One member of it was murdered on the same land that three later generations of his progeny will drive down freely. This closing image stayed with me for days and reminded me of the signs one could see in the Lower Ninth Ward shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck. We will return, the signs announced amid unthinkable devastation. We will rebuild. These promises were painted on plywood and hung on homes built below the sea, by a people determined and quixotic enough to rebuild their lives over land they know is too unsteady, too wet, for their plans to make any sense at all.

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is an essayist and critic who lives in New Orleans.