Emily Raboteau prefaces her informative, heartfelt and sometimes maddening memoir, “Searching for Zion,” with a quote from James Baldwin’s novel “Giovanni’s Room”: “You don’t have a home until you leave it.”
Baldwin knew a lot about home. He fled America for France at age 24, wanting to write and fearing racism would destroy not only his talent but his soul. Though he later returned to the United States, he never fully settled here again. Still, Baldwin explicitly rejected the romanticism of exile. In the 1989 documentary “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin says Paris taught him that “you don’t ever leave home. You take home with you. You better; otherwise you’re homeless.”
Moreover, Baldwin — like Frederick Douglass, David Walker and countless others — insisted that America was the true home for black Americans. Writing to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Baldwin said, “For this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it.”
Raboteau, a novelist and professor at City College of New York, eventually arrives at the same conclusion, sort of. The daughter of a black father and a white mother (who gets surprisingly little play in this book), Raboteau grew up angry and disaffected, not only from her local community but from America itself. By age 23, she can’t even answer the question, “Are you American?” with any straightforwardness. “I’m from New York,” she says.
The idea of searching for her true home begins in Israel while visiting a childhood friend who has become an Israeli citizen under the Law of Return. “While I continued to feel unsettled, Tamar now had a divine Promised Land, a place to belong, and a people who embraced her. . . . Here she was in Zion.”
Spurred by the experience, Raboteau sets off on a 10-year journey to find a home of her own. As she clearly anticipates, it’s sometimes a little hard to feel sorry for her. She grew up in Princeton, a child of economic and educational privilege. She travels extensively and seemingly without financial constraint. She writes that her father “left my family” when she was 16, but it’s clear from the many interactions in the book that he did not, in fact, abandon her. She also focuses a lot on the difficulty of “looking white,” but rarely mentions the benefits, even in 21st-century America. More critically, she can sound privileged and naive, as when she mouths off to Israeli airport officials. How many young, poor, urban blacks, taught to speak respectfully to police upon fear of death, would try that on their first international trip?
Learning about Rastafarianism in Jamaica, she is not only surprised but outraged to find its followers deeply homophobic. “I was profoundly disappointed, like a child who’d been deceived by her teacher. . . . I wanted to topple the card table, smash the radio, and throw a tantrum.”
What lifts “Searching for Zion” above such annoyances is the way Raboteau becomes increasingly and affectingly clear on the true focus of her quest: the yearning to connect with a father who has his own painful reasons for racial anger. The rigor of Raboteau’s journalistic work and her candid self-assessment also help. More than once I was won over by her acknowledgment of her self-involvement. “Somebody needed to slap me too, for my fun-crushing sanctimony, but I didn’t know it at the time,” she writes in Jamaica.
By far the strongest parts of the book are Raboteau’s exploration of the far-flung, home-seeking African diaspora. I learned a great deal about Ethiopian Jews, who apparently prefer the term Beta Israel to the better-known Falashas. They migrated to Israel after the chief rabbinate recognized their status as Jews in the 1970s, but they have yet to fully integrate into Israel society. Raboteau also describes the African Hebrew Israelites, a group of black Americans living in the desert in Israel and preaching the word of their Chicago prophet, and she notes that Rita Marley, Bob’s widow, is living a kind of Zionist dream in Ghana. All of this, and more, is thoughtful, well-researched and deeply fascinating.
In “Giovanni’s Room,” Baldwin wrote, “I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home.”
Raboteau’s “Searching for Zion” offers a different version of that journey, one that can take you somewhere important without leaving home.
McLarin is an assistant professor of writing and literature at Emerson College in Boston. Her memoir, “Divorce Dog: Men, Motherhood and Midlife,” will be published in March.
By Emily Raboteau
Atlantic Monthly. 305 pp. $25