March 27, 2024

Princeton Author Emily Raboteau to Discuss New Collection of Essays

By Anne Levin

Emily Raboteau

Emily Raboteau was 10 years old when her father, Princeton University Religion Professor Albert Raboteau, gave her and her brothers “the Talk.” The subject was the discrepancy in society’s treatment of Blacks and whites.

“Because of white supremacy, some people would think negatively of us, no matter how smart we were, no matter how poised, how well-dressed, well-spoken, or well-behaved,” Raboteau writes in her recently published book Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse.” “We would have to work twice as hard to get half as far. There were different rules for Black people and, in particular, for young Black men. The streets were not as safe for my brothers as they were for their white friends…. As a female, I would be preyed upon by men who would try to take advantage of me, and as a light-skinned Black girl who could pass for white, I would hear white people spewing all kinds of ugly untruths about Black folks, whose dignity I would have to defend.”

A few decades later, Raboteau and her husband gave “the Talk” to their own two sons — as her grandmother had to her father. Racial discrimination is just one of the topics of the collection of essays in the book, which Raboteau will discuss at Labyrinth Books on Wednesday, April 3, starting at 6 p.m. The 1994 graduate of Princeton High School will be in conversation with Elizabeth Harman, her childhood friend and neighbor and a professor of moral philosophy at Princeton.

“I’m really excited to be talking with Liz about the book,” Raboteau said. “We grew up across the street from each other, at Princeton and Prospect avenues. “We were friends. We played outside. We were the last generation before the internet. She is a philosophy professor in the same department that her dad was in. He died a year after my dad died. We kind of consulted with each other about eulogizing our dads. She’s my only friend like that — so heavily influenced professionally by our parents. So this is a particular way of confirming our friendship.”

Raboteau’s book is earning high praise. A March 12 review by Tiya Miles in the New York Times Book Review called it “a soulful exploration of the fraught experience of caretaking through crisis.” Kirkus Reviews described the book as “A thoughtful collection with an urgent message,” while author Teju Cole wrote “Vital work here, by Emily Raboteau … it’s about paying attention to life, and how love is the residue of such attention.”

Central to the book’s 20 essays is the issue of raising two sons in a world where police violence, climate calamities, and pandemics are commonplace. Essays include her visits to Israel and Alaska, a climate diary she kept for a year, the need for home, and the plight of climate refugees. Interspersed throughout are her photographs, including a series in Manhattan documenting a National Audubon Society project to raise awareness of endangered species. A picture she took of her children dressed in scary Halloween costumes inspired her to write, “My young look strong and alert. Good. They will have to be brave for the roadwork ahead.”

Lessons for Survival is Raboteau’s third book; her first in 11 years. She has been writing its essays for the past decade.

“My children are 11 and 12. This is very much a book that was inspired by them and my desire for them, to thrive in a world that feels very unstable,” she said. “And I wanted to work through what it feels like to be a parent in this area of intersecting crises. I wanted to take a hard look at the moment that we’re in. I decided, with my editor, to put the essays between the covers of a book, and to think about how they relate to one another. There’s a progression in the book.”

Raboteau attended Riverside Elementary School, John Witherspoon (now Princeton Middle School), and Princeton High School. Her mother, who still lives in town, taught for many years at Community Park Elementary School. She and Harmon will likely touch on their Princeton youth in their upcoming discussion.

“We’ll probably give some introduction about our childhoods,” Raboteau said, “and how much [Princeton] has transformed since then. We might talk about how our childhoods are very different from our children’s childhoods. I’m particularly interested in being able to reconnect with Liz. I want to hear her take on parenting. She has her own area of expertise.”

Despite the book’s focus on what is wrong with the world, Raboteau has hope for the future.

“It’s a lot of pressure and a heavy burden for our children, and one of the struggles of parenting in this age is we weren’t prepared by our own elders for this,” she said. “But as Mr. Rogers used to say, ‘Look for the helpers in time of disaster.’ That’s what I do. There are a lot of helpers. A lot of young people are making moves to help. I put ‘the apocalypse’ in quotes in the book title because of what people are working so hard to fix. We can try to stymie the worst -case scenarios. I absolutely do have hope.”