Magazine article The Christian Century

Promised Lands

Magazine article The Christian Century

Promised Lands

Article excerpt

Searching for Zion:

The Quest for Home

in the African Diaspora

By Emily Raboteau

Atlantic Monthly Press, 320 pp., $25.00


Partly a travel memoir, partly the spiritual journey of someone who claims no particular spirituality, and partly a family story of fear and joy, Searching for Zion follows Emily Raboteau's imaginative religious adventures. She travels to "rabidly Christian" Ghana, where one business advertises itself as "Try Jesus Digital Photo Center," and visits the smoke-filled dens of Jamaican Rastafarians, where they regard the queen of England as the "Whore of Babylon" foretold in Revelation.

The book is poignant, moving and often hilarious in its bitter honesty. Raboteau builds on centuries of African-American travel narratives and wraps her narrative around global searches for Zion. The result is both jarring and inspiring. Searching for Zion is one of those rare books that shines light not only on a personal exploration of faith but on the wider fabrics of faith in the modern world.

Raboteau begins at Newark Airport and ends in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. One of her stops in between is Israel, where she visits her closest friend during adolescence. As teenagers, she and Tamar Cohen felt themselves to be outsiders in white, Protestant, middle-class New Jersey. Raboteau is the daughter of a white woman and a black man and was raised Catholic. Cohen is Jewish and at one point in the early 1990s announced to her biracial friend, "I am not white." Before they met up in Jerusalem in their early twenties, Raboteau was verbally and physically assaulted by security guards. Raboteau recalls never feeling "more black" than when she was mistaken for "an Arab."

In Israel, Raboteau recognizes a theme that becomes central in her book: as one group creates and maintains their Promised Land, they simultaneously make it into a land of bondage for others. In Jamaica, for instance, Raboteau was entranced by Rastafarian members of the Twelve Tribes. Any group that was good enough for Bob Marley, she reasoned, was perhaps good enough for her. Their wordplay fascinated her. They are not "Jew-ish," but "Jews." They never underscore anything, but "overscore" all things. Their linguistic manipulation, however, did not offset their explicit and implicit homophobia. Raboteau could not fathom how individuals so attuned to group oppression and its effects on spiritual life could be so harsh toward gay people. She left Jamaica still in love with Marley's music, but not so sure about his religious compatriots. …

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