A Review of Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion

Envoys will come out of Egypt; Ethiopia will quickly stretch out her hands to God. Psalm 68:31 (NASB)

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“I inhaled, knowing he was right as soon as he said it. At its root, my quest wasn’t about identity. It was about faith.” (Page 76)

Emily Raboteau’s newest work, Searching for Zion: The  Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, is truly a book about the quest for home. It is a raw, angry, hopeful, and frustrated journey that takes the author on a journey to parts of Israel and Jamaica that tourists do not visit or perhaps know about; and to places they do visit – a place of  Rastafari pilgrimage called Shashemene in Ethiopia; to Elmina Castle in Ghana that sits along the Atlantic coast and through which slaves bound for the west were huddled and herded into slave ships; and finally into the American south and a place called Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.

But it is also an inward journey as Raboteau – whose mixed race heritage and light skin causes her to be frequently misidentified and, as she admits early in the book, made her very angry – commences her decade long journey to find a place she calls home, beginning with a trip to Israel to visit a childhood friend whom she had grown up with in Princeton, New Jersey where her father had been the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion.

During that journey she discovers that there are Jews who are black and the discovery creates a desire to return and find out more about the black Jews and their history. Finding a unique blend of Judaism in the Negev desert alongside  Rastafari in Tel Aviv night clubs, Raboteau begins to explore the wider themes, events, and personalities as the book’s subtitle indicates “the quest for home in the African Diaspora.” The result is an important addition to understanding the history of  Biblical themes of Exodus, Egypt, and Babylon that is a part of black history and religion.

Journeying to Kingston, Jamaica and learning about the influence of the late Bob Marley (she would later meet with Marley’s widow in Ghana) and Rastafari, Raboteau begins to encounter themes and issues that she would face again and again in her journey – the effects of the slave trade centuries later, race relations, economic inequalities, the hollowness (perhaps shallowness) of the museums and shrines erected to those who sought to create a new African union and consciousness, and, most importantly, her increasing realization that home is not a place of geography but something deeper. But in her visit to Jamaica she encounters a heart felt desire by many to return to Africa and especially Ethiopia “the Promised Land.”

Her journey to Ethiopia, which is part three of this five part work, takes the reader back into both pre and post colonial African history and reveals a nation’s history that stretches back to Biblical times. But there she sees a disconnection between the hoped for dreams and the reality that surrounds her. After entering a party in honor of Haile Selassie’s birthday anniversary celebration that turns dangerous for her, there is a turning point in her journey, “I was sick of Rastas and Ethiopians as they were of each other. And I was sick of myself.” But it was also a point at which she further realized “there was no such place as Zion; that it was a metaphor at best.”

Her journey then took her to Ghana and there she toured a major Elmina Castle a major departure point for slave ships to the West. But she also was increasingly disillusioned with the disconnect between what she saw in both the native culture and the visiting culture, embodied in the group she toured Elmina with. The result in some notable conversations result in a surprise for Raboteau, “Most of the pilgrims I’d met on my travels through Israel, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Ghana seemed as focused on the past as on the present. Very rarely on the future. They were shackled by the old stories, as if there weren’t any others to tell. I was ready to go back to America, my nation.”

The result is the book’s final trip with her husband and her cancer-stricken father to the gulf coast of Mississippi and the town of Bay St. Louis, still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, the place of her family’s ancestry for a family celebration. While en-route she notes, “I felt now what I’d known from the beginning. Zion is within. I understood that I would forget this and, as with love, or faith, have to learn it again.”

What I like about this book is the meshing of both the panoramic sweep and personal views (author and those interviewed for the book) regarding African history and life. There is a lot to ponder in this book. A second reading might be a good thing because this is a ‘rich’ book. Rich in tone, personality, emotion, and humanity.

I rate this book an ‘outstanding’ read.

Note: I received an uncorrected proof of this book via the Amazon Vine review program in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

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