When my husband and I were deciding on a name for our son seven years ago, I’d had my heart set on the name Kofi. I’d heard the name in college and loved it without knowing anything about its origin. When we researched the name and discovered it was Ghanaian for “born on a Friday,” my husband, a sociology professor who is also white, asked a Ghanaian colleague if we could still name our son Kofi even if he wasn’t born on a Friday. His colleague replied: “Um, yeah, you could, but it would be kind of weird.”
As it happened, our son was born on a Friday, and is every bit his own Kofi. But I have come to realize, and was ever more reminded while reading Emily Raboteau’s extraordinary new book, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, that my son’s name means so much more to me now, not simply because it is what I call him, but also because as a biracial, black-identified mother of a racially ambiguous looking child, I like that his name implies some sort of African legacy, which in reality, he can no more claim than I or any of us can.
Such is the odd, complicated and heartfelt hope for those of us who, to many, represent the paradoxical identity of being both black and white in America. And so prompted the journey of Ms. Raboteau, the daughter of a celebrated historian of African American religion and a white elementary school teacher. Her book, beautifully written and about which Dave Eggers has said, “I doubt there will be a more important work of nonfiction this year," documents Raboteau’s 10-year odyssey through reggae bars in Tel Aviv, the Kingdom of Yah in Jerusalem, Kingston, Jamaica and the Dead Sea in an effort to escape the “ridiculous cliche” of being “the ‘tragic mulatto’ whining about not belonging,” and to find a place where it felt as though she did belong.
“My search for belonging stemmed, in large part, from being biracial in a country that remained and remains stratified along racial lines,” said Raboteau when we recently met. She is light-skinned and pretty, with dark, riveting eyes and silky-straight hair. “I didn't easily fit in and folks were always asking me what I was and where I was from. It was hard to feel at home with that line of daily questioning. I wanted to live someplace where I wouldn't feel constantly interrogated, where I would be simply accepted and understood as part of a ‘we.’”
Although she has been mistaken for many different ethnicities, including Arab, which made her the target of a beer bottle lobbed at her head (from which she still has a scar) in the Brooklyn neighborhood where she lived shortly after 9/11, she firmly identifies as black. Her reasons have to do with culture and history, but more, she says, because, “I grew up in a household with a lot of black pride.”
Still, as a child in the predominantly white town of Princeton, New Jersey, her best friend was a Jewish white girl named Tamar, with whom Raboteau shared a loved of Reggae music, and felt connected to “by histories of oppression, but more than that, we both had soul,” she writes. “In addition to appreciate the right music, having soul meant that when you witnessed a poster for the auction of a 33-year-old slave woman … what you felt was not guilt but rather the itch to smash your fist into somebody’s face.”
The two friends went to different colleges, and after graduation, Tamar moved to Israel, where she had spent her childhood summers, and had recently made “aliyah,” the immigration of Jews from the Diaspora to Israel. Raboteau’s first trip to visit Tamar started off with her being strip searched by EL AL Airline security because the answer she gave when asked “What are you?” was deemed unsatisfactory. She was then 23, and although admits to being a little “lippy” with the young security men, maintained that “black” was an adequate answer to their question.
In fact, it was not adequate—not to the security men, nor to Raboteau herself, who realized following her trip to Israel that she felt envious toward Tamar for having a homeland to return to, “a birthright, a people and a place to belong in the world, when I did not.” It is an initial response Raboteau now calls “misplaced and simplistic,” but it was enough to inspire the quest for her own Promised Land. Or Zion.
“I'd heard about the Promised Land in the lyrics of Bob Marley and Negro spirituals and in the sermons of Martin Luther King,” she explains. “I knew that black people, since the time of slavery, identified with the Hebrew slaves of the Bible in bondage under Pharaoh, and hoped that they too might make an Exodus to freedom. I became interested in how that metaphor transformed as an idea over time. Was Zion the North? Was it back in Africa? Was it Civil Rights?”
She would have to travel far and wide, and talk with Rastafarians, Evangelicals, and Ethiopian Jews, among countless others, in order to find answers. It was a brave undertaking, and with her Ivy League education and middle class upbringing, Raboteau was not oblivious to the fact that her search for identity, acceptance, and a homeland was also in many ways a luxurious one.
“I asked an African Hebrew Israelite in the Negev desert if he'd found the Promised Land. “He told me, ‘I come from a Detroit ghetto. If I wasn't here, I would be dead.’ The stakes were never that high for me, but had I grown up impoverished, with little chance of ever sitting at the table, I might have gone on the same quest for different reasons.”
And In Harlem, New York, where Raboteau works as a professor at City College and has lived for several years with her husband, the novelist Victor Lavalle, she recognizes her part in the neighborhood’s steady gentrification, and writes in the book about feeling ashamed of her “terrible whiteness.”
I understand well this terrible whiteness, which engenders a different sort of guilt from the kind Raboteau wrote about earlier, and that if felt in response to the disenfranchisement of black people would have rendered her and Tamar soulless. This was in some ways worse. It was riding high on a sense of solidarity within black America and then realizing you are, likely due in no small part to having a white parent, worlds away from the black disenfranchisement that happens every day in cities across America and elsewhere.
In my early 30s when I was writing books about race and still in touch with my white birthmother, with whom I had reunited at 11 years old, we had a conversation in which she expressed her disdain over my having publicly announced that I considered myself black. She was insulted by the implication that her whiteness bore no influence on my identity.
It was a sucker punch, but also a fierce irony. Raboteau in Harlem, the epicenter of black America, ultimately existing as part of the gentry driving out the neighborhood’s cultural landmarks; me writing books about race and black culture, thinking I was finally at peace with my identity, when my white birthmother presents an essentially inarguable defense proving otherwise.
Whether we look for it from our parents or by traveling the globe, a home that offers cultural and racial belonging is hard won for biracial Americans. For Raboteau, who says she does not believe in happy endings, her initial notion of a Promised Land wound up being something entirely different. “I find the Promised Land in moments,” she says. “You don't just arrive. It takes daily effort to get there.” It made me feel connected to her—as if I might be able to live inside those moments too.
Thinking of her vast travels, and what she’s seen around the world, but particularly in Ghana, I tell her the story about naming our son Kofi. “Look,” she said with thoughtful good humor, “we named our kid Geronimo, so I'm the last one who's going to throw stones for cultural appropriation.” She then added: “We just wanted our son to grow up fearless.”