Asphalt Altar

Photo by John St John via Flickr

Photo by John St John via Flickr

“In the end, as a bluesman, as a jazzman, it’s about the life that you live that is artistically and musically shaped. And you can do that in the academy, you can do it on the street, you can do it in the library, you can do that on the basketball court.”

—Cornel West, quoted in Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between by Jeff Sharlet


The 2013 Fathers Are Champions Too basketball tournament took place in one of Roxbury’s toughest neighborhoods. To reach the blacktop, you walk through a maze of side streets, which appear to be dead ends until, suddenly, a thriving scene of basketball drama appears out of nowhere.

The theater that is Boston street basketball features a cast of characters. There is the wave of onlookers fanning out in a circular fashion, sometimes nearly fifty feet from the central stage of the court. This outermost ring is mostly populated with gang members, hustlers, and gamblers. From their position on the outside, they can spy on rivals or scatter when police stream into the neighborhood. Closer to the court is the middle ring, a fluid demographic, heavy with the constant commotion of onlookers moving to and fro, slapping fives, winking at lovers, and wiping sweat off sun-soaked brows. There are men and boys in muscle shirts, white tank tops, and baseball caps—brims straight, turned sideways; women saunter in fitted jeans, skirts, and flower dresses. Coaches with folders, note-pads, and collared shirts shake hands and recruit, and ballplayers stretch their muscles and huddle as they prepare to enter the court. Then there is the inner circle, where older men of respect and basketball wisdom, admired for legendary feats on asphalt, glue their eyes to the court’s play-by-play. Older women share part of the inner circle, sitting under umbrellas near the sidelines on lawn chairs, having quiet conversations, caring for the love-needy. Everyone bops their heads to the beat of reggae rhythms, which pulsate from speakers in the background, the commu­nal heartbeat that gives life and flow to this ritual practice.

At the center of this drama are the players in action, along with the master of ceremonies, who  positions himself between the court and the audience, performing a mediating role like other trickster figures in black Diaspora spiritual ceremonies. He travels between audience and court, microphone in hand, using cunning, humor, and praise to impart meanings on every crossover, shake and bake, and stutter step performed on the asphalt. He is a master of black talk. With the ball in their hands, the play­ers are half men, half heroes, defying the ghetto’s limitations with their flights to the basket. Street ball is rhythm and flow, and during its peak moments, the three rings of the asphalt collapse into a sin­gular band, every head and toe pressed against the sidelines, caught up in the spectacle.

Walking through the outer ring toward the inner court on that day unnerved me. I had been at games like this as a child in Roxbury. Back then, young and determined to learn the game, I played ball at the park from sunrise until the lights went out — Copeland Street playground, Malcolm X Park, community recreation centers. I can still remember my “initiation” into street-basketball culture. My childhood friend G-Big dragged me to the park for the first time. “Does your boy got any game?” asked one of the older gang members running the court. “Yeah, he’s nice,” vouched G-Big. “You’ll see!” As soon as I got the ball, I proved G-Big right. I played ball like my life depended on win­ning that game. My crossover, between the legs dribble was lightning quick. I played out of my mind. In some ways my life did depend on that game. Every boy in my neighborhood understood that there were three common routes of escape from the ghetto. You could become a gangster, a rapper, or a ballplayer (admittedly, you could become a “student” or “artist,” but they were often socially isolated; “nerds” were targets). And since I couldn’t fight or rhyme on the mic, basketball was my refuge.

If gang members viewed you as a promising ballplayer in my neigh­borhood, they would grant you a pass from participation in the gang. To them, being a basketball star meant that you embodied a higher purpose; you were “Black Jesus,” “Born Ready,” the “Chosen One,” “the Truth,” or “the Answer” to the problems besetting the inner city. Eventually I did become one of Boston’s best ballplayers, leading my neighborhood team to a neighborhood-league championship and earning Boston Globe and Boston Herald All-Scholastic honors. I made it to Yale University. I joined the basketball team, which felt like a racist corporation compared to the passionate play on the streets. I felt isolated on the court, as if I was dancing to music that no one else could hear. I quit to focus on my studies, to turn to philosophy and religion, to expose the contradiction that people of African descent face in America every day. It led me to graduate school at Boston University, and all those years pulled me away from the old neighborhood.

Returning to a Roxbury basketball court, surrounded by unfamiliar gang members, was frightening. I was now a stranger here, eager to avoid attracting the attention of gang members with my awkward body. I did what I could to improvise, my journey from the outer ring to the inner circle a sensual study in the ritual geography of the court. As I walked through the outer circle, I turned myself into a pseudogangster and a hustler. The streets’ normative definitions of black masculinity took possession of my body—be tough, hide your real emotions, distrust everything, avoid intimacy, and “pose” with a hard countenance. I passed by hustlers with my chest puffed out. I added a limp to my step, dipping down low on one side, coming up high on the other. I tried to focus my eyes on the action inside the court, careful to avoid the stares of young men on the outside. I wore a mask of black masculinity to guard against becoming a target in the neigh­borhood. My body became what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as a “living memory pad,” performing the racial and gendered history of the streets.

But when I finally passed through the gateway to the court, there was a powerful moment of release — a letting go of the burden of being black and male. I could feel my body again, with all its fluidity, vital­ity, and heart. The hidden rules of the larger culture had imprinted themselves on my flesh, but at court’s edge, a feeling of relief washed over my entire body. I could breathe again. The gateway to the court beckoned me into a hoops sanctuary from a hostile world.

Black men’s bodies are overdetermined by racism and poverty on the court, but to stop there is to strip ballplayers of agency and to overlook their lived experiences of the games. In a twist of irony that rivals the sleight of hand of a crossover dribble, social scientists have attempted to explain black basketball by setting aside the subjective experiences the players have of it. In their desire to remain objective and to adhere to disciplinary boundaries, scholars have reduced basketball to a set of rules predetermined by external conditions. The powerful socioeconomic forces of poverty, racism, and mascu­line role constrain black male bodies, push­ing them toward limited definitions of self as ballplayers, gang­sters, and hustlers. This “symbolic violence,” as Bourdieu refers to it, is often embodied and internalized by the players. But to stop there is to leave us with only a thin sense for the human and lived dimensions of these games. The experience of the court as a vehicle of self-emancipation is stripped away. The living dimension of this urban religion is lost.

In the ritual space of the asphalt, the experience of being on the court and moving one’s body with others to the rhythms of ball and sound gives black men and their communities access to a communal sense of freedom that counters the effects of this dehumanization. This was one of the contradictions of being a black ballplayer that led me to quit playing, that I longed to understand.

Members of Boston’s street-basketball community do not go to inner-city courts simply to be exploited. They go to discover their humanity, to demonstrate to themselves and others that they pos­sess something intangible — what William James calls something “more,” not subject to the decay of urban life. Especially during times of crisis, these men turn themselves into choreographers of the court, playing the game to express grief, find hope, and revel in community.

After the game, I left the court to return to every­day life, aware again of leaving a safe enclosure, of the vulner­ability of my body to the streets and their violence. Moving beyond the outer circle felt like leaving a strange world behind, one totally separate from and inimical to the white, middle-class context of my graduate studies. In comparison, the university culture felt disembodied. It lacked sensual reminders of the rhythmic communal ties I had reluctantly left behind. But I am reminded of the life on the court and the deaths in the street every time I stare at pictures of dead black youth on gymnasium walls and outdoor fences or see their names tattooed on players’ bodies and scribbled on the backs of uniforms. They haunt me in a way that belies death. I am transfixed by these black spirits, through whom one might sense what it is like to walk inner-city streets, to lace up sneakers, stand on cracked asphalt, hold a ball in sweaty palms, and let the injury of race ride one’s body into the ground.


Adapted from Black Gods of the Asphalt by Onaje X. O. Woodbine. Copyright © 2016 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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