Black gods of the asphalt: street basketball, power, and embodied spirit
Offley Woodbine, Onaje X.
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This dissertation examines the motivations behind black male "hoop dreams." Other scholars have argued that young black males in the United States are "pushed by poverty" and "pulled" by predominately white institutions to pursue the game of basketball as a means of escape from the difficulties of the inner city. While these deterministic accounts are illuminative, they strip these ballplayers of agency, attempting to explain the significance of basketball in their lives without considering their lived experiences. The result is that the wider scope of meaning and feeling that drives black males to crossover, spin, and stutter step on asphalt courts, is completely overlooked in the scholarly literature. To address this gap, I conducted an ethnographic study of Boston street basketball from 2010 to 2014. During participant observation and interviews, I learned that black males also go to inner city basketball courts to discover their humanity, to demonstrate to themselves and others that they possess something intangible not subject to the decay of urban life. Especially during times of crisis, these men turn themselves into choreographers of the court, playing this game in order to express grief, find hope, and revel in community. In this dissertation, I explore this deeper quest for human 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 males 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."