Onaje Woodbine: “Who’s Got Next? A Black Hoops Liberating Spirituality”

Apr. 20, 2022, 5:30 p.m.

Taylor Hall 203

This is the annual Frederic C. Wood Lecture presented by the Department of Religion. This year’s presenter is Professor Onaje Woodbine of American University.

Black men and women do not go to inner-city basketball courts to be exploited. They go to discover their humanity, to demonstrate to themselves and others that they possess something intangible—something not subject to the decay of urban life. Especially during times of crisis, these men and women transform themselves into choreographers of the court, playing this game in order to express grief, find hope, and revel in community. In this lecture, I explore this deeper quest for meaning and identity in inner-city basketball through the lenses of religious studies, philosophy, and the reflexive sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. I argue that, while the practices of street basketball do express considerable symbolic violence, the actual experience of playing the game goes far beyond the simple enactment of stereotypical representations of Black athletes as dumb jocks or uncontrollable animals. Religious studies in particular can speak to this deeper dimension of human agency on the asphalt, at the level of feeling, emotion, and the embodiment of what William James calls a “more.”

Onaje X.O. Woodbine is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at American University in Washington, D.C., where his research explores the varieties of Black religious experience, especially as they are lived on the margins of power and outside the bounds of established institutional authority. His book, Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball, has garnered national praise as “a profound narrative of survival [and] self-determination … in this season where black male bodies are under attack.” Black Gods has been adapted into a stage play, which was performed at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in South Africa.

Audience members must present a Vassar College ID or supply proof of full vaccination (vaccination or booster within the last six months) or a negative COVID-19 test taken 24 hours before coming to campus. Masks are required indoors for everyone except speakers or performers who can maintain a six-foot distance from the audience.

Professor Onaje Woodbine of American University
Professor Onaje Woodbine