Q&A with Onaje Woodbine, author and former Yale basketball standout

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Ivy Hoops Online caught up with Onaje Woodbine (Yale ’02) for an in-depth conversation about his new book “Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball,” a book exploring the transcendent experience that the game has provided as lived religion for young black males playing basketball on the same playgrounds in the Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan sections of Boston where he’d played as a teenager.

In the book, Woodbine chronicles quitting the Yale basketball team in 2000 to pursue “the higher aims of divine purpose and truth” and a disconnect between himself and his players at coaches and Yale that took on cultural and racial overtones. Most centrally, he illustrates how playing basketball represented a religious experience for young black males in Boston dealing with grief and tragedy in their neighborhoods and families.  

Just three days before leaving for South Africa, where a play based on the book will be performed, Woodbine talked to Ivy Hoops Online about what Yale basketball fans should take away from his book, why Yale coach James Jones (also Woodbine’s sophomore-year coach in 1999-2000) reached out to him recently, and the power of religious consciousness.

Ivy Hoops Online: What kind of feedback are you getting about this book?

Onaje Woodbine: The guys I interviewed and formed relationships with in the inner city, they have seen the book as a gift. They have told me that it gave them a perspective on themselves that they knew was there but couldn’t always articulate or didn’t have the words for. Much of what they were doing was unconscious. They said to have an opportunity to sort of step back and see themselves, that is an amazing gift. For me, to be able to move back to my neighborhood and offer that as a gift has been healing for me. I felt homeless. I left the inner city. I knew I was safe physically at places like Yale but I realized much later on that had gone through a tremendous loss in leaving my community, and I didn’t really fit in at Yale either, so I sort of felt in exile. To be able to go back home and bring this as an offering, that’s been completely powerful for me.

IHO: You’re not really at the center of the book as much as the community, as the basketball court, as Roxbury. That’s really their story as much as it is yours.

OW: People in the mainstream culture have reached out and said they would not have had access to that world without (that). So that’s been amazing too. One of my goals was bringing some empathy for outsiders. I think I hope in some way I’ve been like a bridge aimed at communities. That’s pretty much been the reaction that I’ve gotten.

IHO: That’s kind of what you set out to do, right? To tell the stories of the neighborhood, the communities that you grew in and undertake that ethnography?

OW: That was really the hardest part. I wanted it to retain the agency and the language of these young men, and at the same time, I wanted to find language that outsiders could understand. There was a lot of grappling in the dark, trying to find the right tools, the right language. And that’s why in the book, I get interdisciplinary. I mix social sciences, that kind of outsider perspective. But then I needed religious studies, I needed poetry, I needed first-person accounts to open up what it’s actually like to experience what it’s like being on the basketball court from these young men’s perspectives. I tried to bring both of those into the conversation.

IHO: Right, it’s not often you get Clifford Geertz and the Notorious B.I.G. in the same book.

OW: Yeah, that was the fun part. Once I was able to find the right tools, then it was fun, because I was able to bring B.I.G. and Geertz into the conversation, which was awesome.

IHO: And that brings me to a procedural question. In the book, you right about the emotional difficulties that come with undertaking the ethnography that you set out to complete, which caused you to revisit painful losses during your life and that your friends and acquaintances in Roxbury endured in theirs. How emotionally difficult was it, once you completed your fieldwork, to actually write the book, taking stock of so many tragedies? Obviously, pursuing your ethnography required some tough moments with your sources going deep with them, but it is another endeavor altogether to sit down and cohere that into an interdisciplinary book?

OW: Yeah, definitely. The book itself, I felt like I was a medium for these narratives, for these voices. When I sat down, I felt haunted by these stories of violence and trauma. That’s why at the beginning of the book, there’s a small epigram from Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor: “…for we must ‘think’ and the ghosts shall drive us on.” Because I felt driven by these ghosts of race, gender and poverty, by these stories of premature death, and sitting down became a ritual process for me. It took a lot of courage each day to sit and listen to these stories. I felt like I was just observing them. Oftentimes, I would reflect on these stories, think about people who had passed away, and I felt like I was writing for them as much as I was writing for the living. I was writing for the memories of the dead. I remember, it was on one occasion, I had just reflected on all the stories, and it hit me – it was one of my a-ha moments – that every single guy I had interviewed had had a tremendous amount of adverse events in their lives. It wasn’t one, two, it was 12, 15, 20. I thought, this is a communal trauma, this is a whole community, and how can that be? That’s when it got really emotional. It took a long time to process that.

IHO: That wasn’t a common thread you were necessarily expecting to come across?

OW: Oh, no. I was not expecting that. Even though I grew up in that neighborhood, in that environment, my mother played such an important role in my life. She really pushed education in the house. My mother was working, she’s a ballet dancer, and she has a personality that kind of protected me in so many ways that I didn’t realize. So when I stepped out of my house, I didn’t realize that I was scared all of the time. When I was in the house, I felt safe. And I didn’t know all of my friends, all the people I was growing up, had a completely different experience. It wasn’t until this whole process that I realized, wow, I was an outlier. As much trauma as I experienced, they experienced 10 times as much. For example, to find out almost every single one of those guys had a caregiver that was addicted to drugs, or that more than half had been stabbed or shot at one point. I had to step back and see it from the perspective of the forest, and I said, wow, this is a war zone.

IHO: How would you recommend that coaches and administrators at any level go about nurturing young black athletes in the position that, in the book for example, Jason was? (Jason played basketball for a Division III college, had required guidance from his late great-grandmother since his mother was a crack addict.) How should people who are in an athletic environment go about nurturing these young black athletes that are in a traumatic situation like that?

OW: What these guys need the most is for elders, coaches, folks who have been entrusted with their care, is to recognize that they do come from traumatic environments and they need someone to empathize with their stories. All they’re looking for is somebody to recognize positive qualities within them. Many of them have a vacuum, they’ve never had that. All it takes is for a coach to ask about a story, to be for them, to provide them with resources if they do decide to reach out and ask for help. They need to use therapy. Many of them have post-traumatic stress. What an individual can do is be with these guys and truly, truly listen and put their humanity before their athleticism. All of us need to provide therapy. It’s one of the things I think is missing both in the inner cities and at the college level. We need more elders to recognize that these young men are going through this trauma.

IHO: And even within the same example, with Jason, it was a very big deal for him for the trainer that helped him recover to be emotionally present for his turnaround from injury. All it really took was a look of great empathy.

OW: We don’t know ourselves until someone mirrors that for us. We take our self-esteem and our self-image from others. Others can provide the self almost like oxygen for a person to see. So on a psychological and a spiritual level, a look, a question, staying after practice just one more moment and talking, searching a little deeper. I had some coaches who did that for me, and I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t have that.

IHO: How can a young male or female basketball player avoid the objectification of their body, particularly at the NCAA level, and achieve the second half of the double consciousness that you note? Do you think the NCAA system even allows for that, with its paternalistic, corporate culture?

OW: Yeah, well, there’s always room for resistance and freedom. From their perspective, it starts from within and the recognition that no one can determine the quality of your inner life. So for me, it was my father reconnecting with me and telling me I had everything I needed from within and all I had to do was listen to that small voice. And once I became aware of that, no one could take it away from me. And I think that’s what empowered me to resist those impersonal systems like you’re talking about with college athletics and the pressure to win, and to win at the cost of these guys’ education, their lives and their spirit. So I think that college athletes need to become more conscious and aware of their own humanity, a part of them that no one can take away. And that’s still practice. That’s practices like meditation. Whatever you do to reconnect with your true self, that’s the basis for self-empowerment and even resistance.

IHO: James Jones was quoted as saying in the recent New York Times story on your book and basketball journey as saying that you wanted to be Allen Iverson when you were at Yale. Because you’ve continued to develop a religious consciousness about basketball since then, do you think of the basketball heroes or idols any differently than you did when you were growing up and first. Do the personalities and styles of the people you grew up watching play basketball mean more to you now as a result of that religious consciousness?

OW: Allen Iverson, let me just address that – I do appreciate what he does but I never wanted to be like Allen Iverson. I read that as well, but I don’t know where that came from. I will say that I’ve become more critical of some professional athletes because I’ve become more aware of how all of us, including myself, can embody unconsciously these oppressive systems and not necessarily be aware or willing to critique them. I see the heroic dimension or perspective I may have had a young man for some professional athletes, the way that I adored them, I am more critical now. However, that’s not to say I don’t think that some athletes can’t point us in a direction toward freedom, and that they don’t have the potential to do that. And that comes from not really watching professional sports but from watching inner-city street ball. I’ve seen guys tell their stories with the ball, with their bodies, with the hoop, in ways that were magical and transcendent, that did provide me and the community a moment where we beyond the streets. So human beings have that capacity for transcendence, ball players have that capacity. And yet we are finite and limited. So I think as an adult, I’m more aware of both and that all of us are a mix. That’s what I wanted to show on these courts. I hope that young men and women who are watching basketball now maybe after reading it can see both in these athletes, the good and the bad.

IHO: One of the takeaways I had was people who show up and spectate at street games, those who don’t have a gang affiliation – they’re just rooting for a dunk, for passion, for characters, and for life, especially at the memorial tournaments, that you chronicle. But at a random NCAA game, they’re rooting for an institution, for jerseys, and it’s really arbitrary who happens to be wearing the jerseys that they root for. Is that part of the problem with NCAA basketball right there, that it comes down to rooting for an institution regardless of whether there might have been some NCAA violations?

OW: Sure, the commodification of the game and the way in which the media creates these narratives, tells you who is and who isn’t a star, certainly I think it drives the business of it. The other thing you talked about, observing and participating – in street ball, there are no simply observers. Everybody’s an observer and a participant, and the boundaries between the two are fluid. You have people who at one point are watching and the next second, are on the court dancing or high-fiving. The players jump into the audience, there’s a call and response. It’s very communal. In college athletics and professional basketball, you have to be rich in order to interact with players. You have to have courtside seats. There isn’t that intimacy and that personal connection. Really, most people are simply observers there.

IHO: What do you think the takeaway from your book should be for people who are fans or followers of Yale basketball, particularly for fans that maybe haven’t considered much beyond Yale making it to the NCAA Tournament and the success that the program has had under James Jones?

OW: We still have work to do. One is that we still have work to do. Yale is not exempt from all of the forces of racism, sexism and class divide that any other college athletic team experiences. But at the same time, and this is very powerful for me, coach Jones reached out to me actually, and we’ve had our own reconciliation. I think that’s very important for people to know, that coach Jones told me that he wants to make sure that young men are feeling like their humanity is affirmed on the basketball court, that the life of the mind is affirmed. He’s invited me to campus to speak to some of the young men. I think that process that he and I went through, really a true reconciliation, is a powerful model potentially for the future of Yale basketball and other colleges. I’m sure there are many young men who have felt injured by their experiences, and there’s a lot of opportunity out there for reconciliation between coaches and players. I really applaud coach Jones and the direction I think he wants to take Yale basketball. I played a while ago, and he explained that he’s already sort of moved in that direction. That’s what I would say, that there’s a lot of work ahead but coach Jones and I have had conversations and I’ve been really impressed with his desire to reach out and affect change.

IHO: That’s good to hear. When did he reach out to you?

OW: Shortly after I wrote in the Chronicle (of Higher Education, on April 1) and he was made aware of some of those things. He reached out with an open heart and mind, he didn’t reach out in anger or any of those things. He reached out truly to listen, move forward and create a better Yale basketball in the future. That was pretty impressive. And again, wow, if coaches can do that in other places, that’s a great step. When you think how many young men didn’t get an education, made the school lots of money at other schools and can’t get a job in the inner city and they’re forgotten. It’d be amazing to have that conversation with schools and programs, with these former players.

IHO: Do you think it was inevitable that the transition from high-stakes street basketball to a more corporate culture of basketball would be a letdown for you?

OW: Oh, certainly I think that is the most difficult transition for many athletes. There are many who become victims of that, expecting it to be one way and they arrive on campus and they’re treated like animals, like laborers. They become disillusioned, disheartened, are cut from the team and never to be spoken to again, and they end up right back in their old neighborhoods. Or they play for a year, don’t perform well and are forgotten because of that by their coaches or school.

But I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think that human beings have some freedom. Yes, we are determined by our environments, but coaches can do things differently. Coaches can be bold in creating new frameworks for how to relate to the system of college athletics. I think it’d be a bold thing for a coach to do something different, to not put winning first. And ironically, I think that if they did so, they might actually win more games. You can have both.

IHO: What do you think fuels the kind of reaction you elicited, the collective cold shoulder you got from some of your teammates at Yale? Was it an unfamiliarity with what the game meant to you in real time on a court? Was there some racism involved?

OW: I think there was a cultural vacuum. I think a lot was lost in translation. I came from a basketball culture where there was a sense of improvisation, passion, emotion. There was the theme of the trickster, tricking others to move one way as you go another. There was trash talking, all of those things. In mainstream culture, that’s considered almost immoral. There’s sort of a surveillance of what we might call hip-hop culture. You see it in college and in professional sports. You can’t jubilate and celebrate in certain ways that come naturally on the streets. I think some of my teammates mistook my body language and self-expression as showboating, as sort of not good or moral or being a good sportsman, when really it was an expression of my joy and love for them and the game. And on top of that, I performed well immediately. I was one of the best players, and there were some racial overtones. My first year, definitely a large majority of the white players joined a fraternity, and none of the black players on the team were in the fraternity, not even the juniors and seniors. There was a tacit racial divide and undertone there as well. So I think all of that played a role. Some of the teammates may have viewed me through the prism of race, unconsciously or consciously. I didn’t recognize they were viewing me that way until I got on the court and noticed their reactions were different from the ones they saw in my neighborhood.

IHO: How’s the play coming based on the book?

OW: The play is going really well. It was a powerful thing – the process of putting the play together with many students of color, seeing them embody these stories in their own way and find their own voices in this basketball culture is so powerful. It was mixed genre. We had rap music, we had dance, spoken word, acting, basketball, so there were many forms of self-expression. The audience was into it. The audience reaction has been astounding. They were participants, just like in the streetball game. There was a back and forth with the audience. It’s been truly amazing. I’ve been privileged to work with young people on the play.

I have a brother, Bokeem Woodbine, and he was in the second season of Fargo. It was a breakout year for him. He played Mike Milligan on Fargo and by all accounts, he was awesome. He and I talked a lot about the similarities between playing ball and acting. In both instances, you’re embodying the story, you’re dramatizing. You’re using your body and your voice with others to do so. That was also helpful to have those conversations with him.

There’s been some interest in turning it into a film. In the future, there’s been a lot of interest in bringing this to the screen so it can reach a wider audience.

IHO: I know the play opened last month. Is the play still running?

OW: So we’re bringing it to South Africa on Sunday with the cast and I, the director and the dance choreographer and others, we’re all going to South Africa. We’ll be performing in several cities there. There’s a theater festival we’ll be participating in. That’s our next stop.

That’s going to be powerful because there’s going to be a dialogue around memory and grief because the play, the book, has a lot to do with the memory of slavery, that history. For us to be able to this on the continent, in a place dealing with post-apartheid reality, I think it’s just going to be powerful.

IHO: How were you able to set that up to perform the play in South Africa?

OW: Phillips Academy, where I teach, has a relationship with some schools in South Africa and has a great Learning in the World program. So this is part of what that Learning in the World program does.

IHO: The book is certainly worthy of such a play, especially since it’s such a physical story too, more so than most narratives.

OW: We turn the stage into a streetball court. Yeah, you need that visceral, embodied experience to get that kind of choreography, the way these stories are being told on the court.

IHO: The book is certainly worthy of such a play, especially since it’s such a physical story too, more so than most narratives.

OW: We turn the stage into a streetball court. Yeah, you need that visceral, embodied experience to get that kind of choreography, the way these stories are being told on the court.

IHO: And as you write about, the rhythm of the court too. The back and forth with the shoes on the pavement, the sounds and rhythms that come from that.

OW: Oh, the rhythm is the heartbeat of the whole thing, the heartbeat of the ritual. Everybody becomes mesmerized by the beat. You return to your authentic body. You set your ego aside. You reenter your humanity through the sound and the movement, the ball and the intensity of the observers. It becomes this intense dance where everyone’s movement impacts your own. It just is this beautiful, communal, almost ballet.

IHO: It really is when you think about it. It is kind of a sneakily obvious connection there. Are there other takeaways or themes worth exploring here?

OW: I would say the last thing I really want people to take away is the power of women in these spaces. For many young men, the court itself is a maternal symbol, a place of rebirth and transformation. But also women themselves who are around the court time and time again are the ones who offer these young men the opportunity for transformation, for rethinking the kind of masculinity that is promoted in the streets. They are the ones often that provide the witness and the empathy that we were talking about earlier. The takeaway there is that in order for young black men to become who they’re meant to be, they really need to recognize the ultimate value of women. That’s something I learned through writing the book.

IHO: Do you plan on writing another book?

OW: My second book is actually on the religious experience and imagination of black women in the streets. I’m basing the story on one of the women in the first book, Dora, the lady of God who speaks to West African and West Indian spirits. I’ve gotten to know her and she has a remarkable life. There are many women like her in the streets. She actually leaves her body at night, she flies. She’s a woman with an eighth-grade education from the projects, she’s 58 years old. She lives this whole other life through her religious consciousness. I think the theme of my books, this one and the next one coming, is that you find religion in strange places. You find it in places you least expect it. I want to explore the issues black women face in this culture and how their religious imagination plays a role in helping them overcome it.

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