Before they had finished their books, before Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts had published “Harlem Is Nowhere” — a finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award — and before Emily Raboteau had published “Searching for Zion,” which was published in January, the two women used to take walks together. They would amble past the George Washington Bridge, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Jumel Terrace Books and other landmarks in the Upper Manhattan neighborhoods where both authors currently live.
Both Raboteau and Rhodes-Pitts are young mothers in their 30s whose nonfiction books share a common theme: a yearning for some sort of promised land. For Rhodes-Pitts, whose book is the first in a planned trilogy about black utopias, that place is Harlem; for Raboteau, it is not just one place, but a series of locations where displaced blacks have endeavored to find a homeland.
Raboteau’s journey began in Israel, where her best friend from childhood had moved to make aliyah, but it also led her through such locations as Jamaica, Ethiopia and Ghana, where she came to challenge some of her long-held assumptions about race and religion. The Forward’s Adam Langer invited the authors to have another conversation, this time at Emily Raboteau’s office at City College where she teaches. The writers discussed parenthood, promised lands, and their thoughts on the relationship between blacks and Jews.
Adam Langer: Can you talk about the idea of a promised land and how your impression of that concept changed over the course of researching and writing your books?
Emily Raboteau: One of my favorite lines in your book about Harlem being a promised land is, “This is our land that we do not own,” which is so declarative and simple, but also incredibly complex and troubling and sad.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts: How do you feel like that applies to the places that you visited? Or does it?
E.R.: Well, it does. For me, when I thought of what the promised land meant, it was always a metaphor for freedom, something I understood in part through the scholarship of my father, who has studied the meaning of the story of Exodus for black Americans in history, in particular what it meant for slaves. And for them, the promised land was the story of the book of Exodus, and the kinship they felt with the Hebrew slaves of the Bible was what gave them personhood in a sense.