Black Gods of the Asphalt

Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball

Onaje X. O. Woodbine

Columbia University Press

Black Gods of the Asphalt

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Pub Date: May 2016

ISBN: 9780231177283

224 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $30.00£25.00

Pub Date: May 2016

ISBN: 9780231541121

224 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $29.99£25.00

Black Gods of the Asphalt

Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball

Onaje X. O. Woodbine

Columbia University Press

J-Rod moves like a small tank on the court, his face mean, staring down his opponents. "I play just like my father," he says. "Before my father died, he was a problem on the court. I'm a problem." Playing basketball for him fuses past and present, conjuring his father's memory into a force that opponents can feel in each bone-snapping drive to the basket.

On the street, every ballplayer has a story. Onaje X. O. Woodbine, a former streetball player who became an all-star Ivy Leaguer, brings the sights and sounds, hopes and dreams of street basketball to life. He shows that big games have a trickster figure and a master of black talk whose commentary interprets the game for audiences. The beats of hip-hop and reggae make up the soundtrack, and the ballplayers are half-men, half-heroes, defying the ghetto's limitations with their flights to the basket.

Basketball is popular among young black American men but not because, as many claim, they are "pushed by poverty" or "pulled" by white institutions to play it. Black men choose to participate in basketball because of the transcendent experience of the game. Through interviews with and observations of urban basketball players, Onaje X. O. Woodbine composes a rare portrait of a passionate, committed, and resilient group of athletes who use the court to mine what urban life cannot corrupt. If people turn to religion to reimagine their place in the world, then black streetball players are indeed the hierophants of the asphalt.

This timely and groundbreaking book is about basketball as lived religion in some of America's most dangerous neighborhoods. But more centrally it is about grief expressed and hope conjured as seen through the lens of a stellar young scholar who has been there and through the eyes of young black men who, though weighed down by the forces of death, somehow rise above the asphalt.

Stephen Prothero, author of Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections)

In this season where black male bodies are under attack, Black Gods of the Asphalt offers a profound narrative of survival, self-determination, and the urban swag of Boston's inner-city basketball courts as sites where religion is 'lived' and spiritual transformation occurs on a regular basis. Woodbine brilliantly posits that the 'ritual space of the asphalt' is where memory, hope, and healing converge to fight the systemic oppressive forces beyond the rim. This book is a slam dunk!

Emmett G. Price III, editor of The Black Church and Hip Hop Culture: Toward Bridging the Generational Divide

The stories in Black Gods of the Asphalt are rich and powerful and are woven together skillfully and beautifully. Onaje X. 0. Woodbine switches between his roles as participant and observer, by turns narrating and analyzing with great dexterity.

Rebecca Alpert, author of Religion and Sports

This narrative is more than academic prose; it is a deeply personal and poetic travel through the author's own story of racial struggle and the survival tactics of the players he befriends.... In this majestic study of basketball as ritual, religion, and culture, Woodbine plunges into the courts of Boston with an insider's savvy to catalogue the urban sport's pulsating (and potentially transcendent) dialogue.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Woodbine's got game, on the court and on the page, and here he dunks emphatically. From the time we meet Shorty, a street-basketball legend, through a brief history of the game and its link (religion playing a large role) to young African American culture, we learn of basketball, and the many lives it memorializes, as we have in few other books.


In this painful, beautiful nonfiction debut, scholar Onaje X. O. Woodbine uses a seamless mix of memoir, ethnography, and poetry to chronicle Boston's street basketball players seeking physical and spiritual grace through hoops.

Boston Magazine

In Black Gods of the Asphalt, the worlds of religion and hoops come together.... Woodbine shares how the courts can be a place of healing, of ritual, of community, and even transcendence.

Christie Storm, Arkansas Democrat Gazette

Black Gods of the Asphalt is likely to change your entire perspective of urban basketball.

David Crumm, Read The Spirit

For the young men in Woodbine's book, street basketball disconnects players from daily life in a way that gives them joy.... But, at the same time, inner city life literally enshrouds their game, and this tragedy is what Black Gods brings to life in vividly realized accounts of young men and the street ball tournaments they play.

David Lipset, Eephus

A powerful and deeply moving work, Black Gods of the Asphalt reveals a world of redemption and hope rarely glimpsed from the outside.

Diana L. Hayes, National Catholic Reporter

A thoughtful, passionate, and personal exploration.

Boston Globe
List of Illustrations
"Enter the Chamber"
Part I: Memory
1. "Last Ones Left" in the Game: From Black Resistance to Urban Exile
2. Boston's Memorial Games
Part II: Hope
3. Jason, Hoops, and Grandma's Hands
4. C.J., Hoops, and the Quest for a Second Life
Part III: Healing
5. Ancestor Work in Street Basketball
6. The Dunk and the Signifying Monkey

Read the introduction:

  • Listen to an interview with the author on CBC Radio’s Q

One of the Boston Globe's Best Books of 2016

About the Author

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