The first time I learned I was American was my first trip abroad to America’s colonial ancestor, England, where I circled a plexiglass-protected 15th century Benin mask at the British Museum. An older white Englishman engaged me in a conversation and when he called me American, it made my ears ring. For the remainder of my trip I observed, Londoners knew immediately by my walk, my posture, my voice (I didn’t talk loudly for fear that I’d get lumped the obnoxious Americans) that I was American. I can’t tell you how shocking that experience was. Even in America I never thought of myself as American. Immediately, I found myself searching for an exceptions, to footnote my American-ness. I’d qualify it with, “No, I’m Black American, so that is very different.”
It was the summer of 2002, not quite a year after 9/11, and much of the rhetoric nationally and internationally centered on speculation around an invasion (war) with Iraq. As the American in the room, I was designated to explain Bush. “Well, you’re American…” and I’d say, “I’m a New Yorker,” or “I’m African American.” After a while, those answers became so absurd. I was born in America, therefore aren’t I American? Our family (like many black families did, after the mini series “Roots” aired in 1977) traced our family roots as far as the records would lead us. We learned that our forebears had arrived on these shores in 1790. After that trip in 2002, I began to take a conscious note to embrace my Americaness, resisting my own language of othering in the land of my birth. My very blackness implies to folks that I’m from somewhere else, except that nearly 223 years after a pair of brown bodies survived the journey from Africa’s West coast to Portsmouth to Meridian, how could I dare say that I’m from anywhere else?
The subsequently few times since then where I have traveled internationally, I’ve been an ambassador for the average looking American, which is really to say, to dispel the assumed perception of what ‘American’ (read: white) looks like. Those experiences hum in the background as I read Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion. Zion is hybrid: part memoir, part travelogue, part social anthropological study, part cultural criticism. Raboteau spent ten years traveling and researching black diaspora communities in Israel, Ethiopia, Ghana, Jamaica and then eventually, returning to the American South, talking to people, unearthing cultural history of the places people identify as promise land, homeland, while interweaving her own family narrative with her ambivalence of place and identity.
Raboteau’s father is a black man from Mississippi, his father was murdered when his mother was pregnant with him and the family fled the South. Raboteau’s mother is Irish American. Raboteau’s face reflects that mixed heritage itself. She writes of her that it is a ‘profile of a mutt, a Rorschach, a ghost.’ In America, and everywhere, Raboteau is confronted daily with the loathed question: what are you?
Raboteau’s uses her own sense of displacement as thread and lens to engage in dialogues with the communities she encounters. The book opens with Raboteau’s visceral account with her confrontation with security officials of El Al airlines for a her first visit to Israel to see a childhood friend, Tamar. Her ambigous racial identity in the face of those officials escalated (they mistook her for Arab) and subjected her to dehumanizing strip search and detention. Raboteau writes, “There was no place for me inside their rhetoric. I didn’t have the right vocabulary. I didn’t have the right pedigree. My mixed race made me a perpetual unanswered question. The Atlantic slave trade made me a mongrel and a threat.”
Zion is a place of magical thinking, we learn through Raboteau’s journeys and conversations with Rastafarians, Black Zionists, her father, Ghanians, the Beta Israels and African Americans. She is trying to order a narrative about the malleability of place and identity, as well as unpack the idea of zion, the utopian homeland to displaced communities. It may seem that given Raboteau’s mixed ancestry would draw overt parallels to Obama’s. Raboteau is wise in avoiding that trope, she substitutes pressupposing his story by introducing all of us to hers, and certainly in doing so, gives voice to a few generations of women and men of mixed race in modern America. In 2013, Obama’s story of mixed ancestry isn’t so much exceptional, but shared, and rendered visible.
While there are a few places of imperfection (in the Jamaica section, Marley as theme and man overwhelm a little), there are places of levity, Searching For Zion is such an important read. Check out this short interview with Raboteau here.