A sophomore in college in 2000, Onaje X. Offley Woodbine was the leading scorer for the Yale Basketball team. In 2001, however, Woodbine walked away from the courts and traveled to Africa in search of his spiritual roots. Today, he uses his experience as a basketball player to reflect upon the role that spirituality plays on the courts.
Woodbine, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies at Andover, explores how African-American youth use basketball as a tool for expressing grief in his new book “Black Gods of the Asphalt,” to be published in May 2017. As part of his research for the book, he interviewed young men and women playing streetball, or street basketball, in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Boston, such as Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.
Woodbine said in an interview with The Phillipian, “What I discovered was that these young men and women weren’t just going to the courts to be exploited, because that is the general theme in literatures… that black men and women play basketball because they are poor, or they feel inferior in other social fields like in the classroom. What I discovered was while those things push young men and women to play, when they get on the court they [are] actually experiencing quite a bit of meaning, and they are also expressing agency and freedom and resistance.”
“Black Gods of the Asphalt” draws on themes of memory, hope, and healing to convey the connection between basketball and spirituality, according to Woodbine.
“After being traumatized or experiencing violence in the streets, [the players] would go to the court and something else would open up, and that experience could be… the presence of an ancestor, who had just passed away, been shoot, killed, or stabbed and killed, and they would feel that person on the court. And the ball, the hoop, and their bodies would turn into almost vocabulary for communication with that person. When the ball went in there was a sign that there was a back and forth going on.”
Woodbine found writing about the spiritual nature of basketball for African-American youths to be a highly personal experience; he even played ball with his interviewees.
“It was an ethnography, and it was self-reflexive, which means that I used my own body, as a text as well, to feel the forces that were at play in their skin. I played [basketball] myself, with them [and] got to know many of them. I am from that area, so that also was helpful to get an insider’s perspective. But I also interviewed [the players]. I spent a lot of time [with the players] and I got very close with many of the young men,” said Woodbine.
Growing up in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Roxbury in Boston, Woodbine knew from a very young age that he wanted to play basketball. In high school he participated in a program for school integration and was frequently bussed to Newton South High School to play basketball.
“I played ball there, and actually, ball was the only consistent thing between both the inner city and the predominantly white school… A lot of the young black men [that came] from inner city felt out of place… [and] I ended up dropping out. But I think what saved me in that sense, in both spaces, was that I could play ball,” said Woodbine.
When he played basketball for Yale, Woodbine found the men’s program to resemble a business more than a team.
“[The] Yale basketball program was more business oriented than the inner-city experience with basketball that I had. Yale basketball felt more corporate, it was more focused on wins and losses, there was less opportunity for self-expression, creativity, individuality, there were also – you know – experiences in the locker room that tended to promote a kind of sexual objectification of women, and there were also some racial issues,” said Woodbine.
“And so, being in Yale and playing ball came as a shock that the focus was quite different from the familial environment of basketball that I grew up in,” Woodbine continued.
After Woodbine left the Yale Basketball team, he traveled to Ghana and Nigeria to connect with his spiritual roots by studying African religion and philosophy.
“That was sort of a return to memory, so the way I look at it is like there’s a time of innocence when you are born, there is the loss of innocence, when you recognize that there is evil in the world, that things are not okay,” said Woodbine.
For Woodbine, writing his book contributed to his search for identity. He hopes that “Black Gods of the Asphalt” will help other young African-Americans find themselves and that his ethnographic research will function as a bridge of understanding between predominantly black and predominantly white communities.
“One of the hardest things in the book was finding words to what was happening in this space, and I thought that would be a helpful and powerful tool for [the youths] to be able to say in words what is going on, to share that… To see that these are human beings, to see… that all of these questions, [such as ‘Who Am I?’] are being asked by young black men in the streets, so that was important,” said Woodbine.