Black Gods of the Asphalt

Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball

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Onaje X. O. Woodbine
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , May
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Onaje X. O. Woodbine believes in basketball: not simply as a social and economic lever in the lives of young people, but as a form of ecstatic “religious experience.” Offering an ethnographic examination of the inner-city hoops scene in Boston’s Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan neighborhoods. Woodbine takes us to the city’s blacktops, front porches, and charity games through thick description, history, and poetry, in part as a reaction to a startling finding upon his return from college: virtually all of the summer tournaments in Boston were memorials to local African American men whose lives were cut short. Looking to reject deficit narratives of African American boys’ interest in hoops—both those that would explain it as an elaborate coping mechanism to avoid the rigors of the classroom, and those that would paint African Americans as pawns in the hands of white scouts and university recruiters—Woodbine opens up the “felt experience” of the game as it mingles with the contours of inner city life (and death). Given that the challenge of ethnographic writing is capturing some sense of authenticity, notably for prose willing to drift between dreams, verse, narrative, and theory, our concern as readers is with a sense of “being there,” and to that, Woodbine’s writing succeeds in spades.

Beginning with his own history as a “known” player—from a streetball legend in Roxbury, to high school phenom, to Ivy League star, to a high profile exit from the team at Yale, to a return to streetball as a doctoral student at Boston University—Woodbine suggests that basketball has become much more than “just a game” for Black America. For the communities in Boston under his scrutiny, it has become a place for ecstatic praxis. Created by James Naismith—in part as a project of the YMCA’s turn-of-the-century Muscular Christianity as well as concerns for the health of the urban industrial proletariat—at its inception basketball had Christian overtones. But it is in narrating basketball as a kind of blues—joy in the midst of sorrow for African American men—that Woodbine offers the clearest extension of religious life.

Can one credibly conceptualize basketball as a religious experience, notably within a publishing world of proliferating volumes on expanding religiosity amidst the backlash to (supposed) secularity? Woodbine is less concerned with outlining a fully developed definition of religion over and against conceptions of the secular; rather, Woodbine simply narrates street basketball as religious. Anchoring—but not elaborating—his argument in David Hall’s notion of “lived religion,” away from doctrinal positions and institutional traditions, Woodbine reveals an embodied and creative remixing of Christian and Afro-West Indian traditions in the sport’s performance. And it is performance, the thin line between public and private becoming quite porous in the ecstatic experience of the game. As an engagement with embodiment—“the movement of player’s bodies, the ball, and the hoop…vocabularies of spiritual communication” (148)—Woodbine is principally concerned with basketball as a boundary ritual, a place to process collective injury through collective healing. Rituals, including high profile Memorial Games and the ecstatic physical release of play, work to unsettle the naturalized symbolic violence of the young men’s everyday life, in part by communicating with and honoring the dead. And what counts as “religion: in this slim volume? Gang members avoid hassling known players in the city, which Woodbine reads as a kind of “sacrilizing.” Charity games are less of a practice of sport, and more of a space to memorialize members of the neighborhood taken too soon. As spiritual experience, a time “out of time,” the physical experience of playing basketball is at first transcendental, transmuted grief converted into ecstasy, and second, a place to literally enact the lives of the dead and resurrect buried dreams. Indeed, Woodbine’s Boston is haunted. In addition to the persistence of the dead in the iconography of community basketball, Woodbine’s hauntology is literal: a central narrative of the book is a vision of a reunion with a deceased streetball companion from his youth.

As an ethnographer, Woodbine is a theoretical bricoleur, drawing together Howard Thurman with ritual theorists and American urbanists, but it is Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptual apparatus that most frequently and centrally frames his work. Those well-versed in Bourdieu’s oeuvre, notably his more methodologically-oriented later (and later translated) writings, may be surprised at Woodbine’s relatively absent engagement with Bourdieu’s substantive neo-Weberian meditations on the structure of religious practice and organization. Indeed, Bourdieu treats religion and religious differentiation as a template on which to build a sociology of conflict in a host of other fields, including sport (notably his “Program for a Sociology of Sport,” 1988). Further, Woodbine’s interest in the “felt experience” of his streetball participants is laudable (notably in its rejection of common structural determinism), but runs in direct contradiction to Bourdieu’s well-trodden allergy to phenomenology, for which the French theorist saves some of his harshest criticism. Finally, Woodbine’s ethnographic claim to be using his “body to make sense of Boston’s street-basketball world” (15) is clearly indebted to Loic Wacquant’s “carnal sociology,” but misses an opportunity to elaborate on how this frame allows an ethnographer to make claims about other’s bodies and inner feelings.

Overall, Woodbine accomplishes his goal of introducing his readers to the “religious experience” of inner city streetball. While the text does not provide a theory of basketball as religion, it gives us a window into basketball as religion broadly conceived, simultaneously disruptive of time and comforting in its engagement with the past. And in an academic landscape where it seems we may find religion wherever we look, Black Gods of the Asphalt convincingly narrates experiences which may credibly be called “religious” in their profound engagement with a local political economy’s violence and a community’s response of healing and reconciliation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Robert LeBlanc is Assistant Professor of Education and Integrative Studies at California Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Date of Review: 
November 7, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Onaje X. 0. Woodbine teaches philosophy and religious studies at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he lives on campus with his family.



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