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Race, Place and Community: A Conversation with Author Emily Raboteau

Emily Raboteau

By Micah English, T ’17

Award-winning author Emily Raboteau visited Duke and Durham this week as part of the Duke School of Medicine’s ongoing series, A Conversation about Race.

She was interviewed by Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture in the Department of African and African American studies. Neal, is also the co-director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity and the host of the weekly webcast, Left of Black. The event was recorded live for a future episode of Left of Black.

The event, “Race, Place and Community,” free and open to the public, was held at 8 a.m., Thursday, March 30 at the Trent Semans Center. Dean Nancy Andrews provided opening remarks.

Raboteau, an English professor at the City College of New York, answered questions from staffers and signed copies of her latest book, Searching for Zion, following the talk. Her book is an exploration of her biracial identity and a longing for an accepting homeland.

“When you’re somebody like me who doesn’t easily fit into a racial category, it doesn’t satisfy. We show that these terms are myths and make some people uncomfortable. If you cannot easily say you belong to a race, then how can you say you are American,” she said.

The concept of a promised land, or Zion, she said, created a sense of shared cohesive identity among enslaved Africans in America united in the struggle for freedom.

“For those who made it North and didn’t get the full citizenship they expected, Zion became heaven,” Raboteau said. “The idea of a homeland really unified enslaved Africans and brought them into the religion of Christianity, because they were coming from different tribes, different languages. That’s what made them a people.”

When I think of Zion and talking to people looking for that place and asking whether they found it the answer is of course no. There’s always somebody on the other side of the wall who is less free than we are. As long as somebody is still at war, still struggling, none of us is free.”

Organized by the Duke Clinical Research Institute, the event co-sponsors include the Duke School of Medicine, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Center on Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship, and Left of Black.

Searching for Zion is a work of creative nonfiction that chronicles Raboteau’s search for a place to call “home,” as a biracial woman who never felt at home in America. Recently DCORE was able to speak with Raboteau about being of mixed race, blackness and the racial color line.

As someone who is considered ethnically ambiguous, how, if so, do you think this complicates the search for identity many African Americans struggle with?

I think my experiences being racially ambiguous contributed to a feeling in my youth of not belonging. But, this also was a result of growing up in a place where there weren’t very many people looking like me or my siblings. Which is to say, my experiences growing up mixed race were very different than someone who grew up in a different context. The feelings of not belonging that drove me personally to search the globe definitely drove the narrative in my book.

It’s of course a different experience of blackness, and a different one from people who look identifiably black, but I also felt a sense of kinship with people who had left home to search for a place elsewhere, who felt a sense of disillusionment with their experiences in the United States, who didn’t feel at home here and who felt a sense of homelessness that would drive them to look for home elsewhere.

Is that feeling related to the title of your new book, Searching for Zion?

Searching for Zion comes from the idea in the Hebrew bible that Zion is a place, the promised land to be exact. It’s an idea that there is a utopian sort of homeland for displaced people. I was borrowing from the tradition of African Americans in this country, that just as there is a place for Israelites outside of Egypt, there is also a place for those who were enslaved in this country, that would be a place of freedom and full citizenship.

Have you always felt accepted as “black,” or is this something that has been challenged?

I think there are, to quote a poet friend of mine, a lot of crayons in the box of blackness. And he’s talking about not only color and colorism, but also tone in a grander sense. There is no one such thing as what it means to be black… That said, to be a person who doesn’t look identifiably black, changes how you move through the world. I experience light-skin or white-skin privilege, depending on the context, so I had a different experience from people who are darker skinned.

I had a lot of people, particularly those who were not black, who were baffled by my identification with blackness. To them, they didn’t understand why I would want to identity as black. But I think most black people I have met have a range of colors in their family, so they have less trouble identifying me as black.

As a woman of color, how are you responding and reacting to the current political situation, specifically the election of Donald Trump?

For me, it’s exciting to see many people who I perceived as “sleeping on the job”, becoming more active in ways that I think are necessary to ensure the freedom and liberation of everyone in the nation. I hope the kind of mobilization we saw around the Women’s March will continue, and not flag as we progress.

As the U.S. population continues to become more mixed, how will the perception of being a mixed person change? How will this influence the ways we continue to view race?

I don’t really have a prediction, except that because this nation is so based on systems of white supremacy, it’s hard for me to see the racial conversation being dismantled. It’s hard for me to imagine this post-racial society that we were supposed to have entered to with the election of Barack Obama, which is to say we will be talking in the same way a couple generations from now using the same terminology about race that we do, which was already outdated from the start. These statistics being raised are important to think about. In the year 2043, which is when we become a no longer white majority nation, it begs the question what it will look like to look like a typical American… which means we have to think in more broad terms about who is American, what it means to be of this place, who this place belongs to.