Onaje Woodbine interview: Discovering Yoruba roots in basketball

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Most Americans have never heard of the Yoruba religious tradition—but religion scholar Onaje X. O. Woodbine is working to change that. A teacher, author and also a trained Yoruba shaman, Woodbine begins to explore Yoruba’s global influence in his debut book, Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop and Street Basketball.

ReadTheSpirit magazine is publishing this interview with Woodbine to recommend that you read his fascinating new book—and make note of his name to follow his work in the future. Black Gods of the Asphalt is likely to change your entire perspective of urban basketball. As Woodbine analyzes the complex religious themes he sees in the culture of street basketball, he also briefly introduces his considerable wealth of research into the influence of Yoruba culture.

Simply put: Buy this book now. It’s a terrific story that will open your eyes to urban culture. Plus, this book is a doorway into the Yoruba-infused world of this remarkable scholar.

Don’t be surprised if you are hearing about “Yoruba religion” for the first time today. The world has largely overlooked its influence as a living spiritual community.


“There are different ways to look at Yoruba practice today,” Woodbine says in an interview with ReadTheSpirit. “Scholars estimate there are 100 million people today who follow Yoruba traditions. But it also can look like this is an endangered tradition because during the many years of colonization and the slave trade, the Yoruba influence was often hidden or given a Christian face so that it could survive.

“Over the past decade, we are seeing a renewed interest in Yoruba scholarship and some scholars now are describing a rebirth of Yoruba traditions in the West, where people are free to express themselves. Your perspective on this issue depends on whether you define Yoruba as limited to its pure, original form coming from Nigeria—or you also recognize Yoruba influence in practices like Santeria that came into the United States through the Caribbean. With a broader definition, there definitely are strong and growing centers of Yoruba influence and practice in Miami and New York, today.”

When Pew Research released its 82-page Global Religious Landscape report in 2012, the Yoruba tradition was not even mentioned. In the Nigerian summary within the nation-by-nation section of that report, Christianity and Islam are listed as the affiliations of 98 percent of Nigeria’s population in about equal numbers. A handful of Nigerian Buddhists, Hindus and Jews are accounted for in that Pew summary. The few remaining Nigerians—including people who identified the Yoruba tradition as their primary affiliation—are listed as 1.5 percent of the population under the labels “folk religion” or “other.”

“In Nigeria, it’s commonly said that no one practices the Yoruba tradition anymore—until they have a problem. Then, everybody goes to the Yoruba priest!” Woodbine said. “It’s understandable given the strong colonial history in Nigeria and, now, the strong division in the country between Christians and Muslims. Behind those affiliations, many Nigerians still hold to Yoruba traditions.”

Pew is not alone in ignoring this religious community. When Norton released its 4,200-page, two-volume Anthology of World Religions to great fanfare in 2014, Norton, and the overall editor Jack Miles, chose to cover “six major, living, international religions”—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hundreds of other indigenous religious traditions, ranging from Native American to Yoruba faiths, weren’t considered either “major” or “international” enough for inclusion.

In coming years, through teaching and writing, Woodbine plans to help raise the level of global awareness.

“The situation has changed a lot in recent years. In pursuing my own studies, I was able to take Yoruba courses at Harvard and at Boston University. More scholars are studying the tradition. Global awareness is growing,” Woodbine said.


Woodbine compares the Yoruba cosmos to the oft-repeated summary of Hinduism as, “One God, many paths,” sometimes phrased, “One Truth, many paths.”

“I think the Yoruba tradition is similar to Hinduism in this way,” he says. “We say that there are many faces to the Yoruba Olodumare, the one spirit that is the source of creation. But in our tradition, then, many Oresha express different essences of the one god. So, there is a common core within the tradition, but there also is quite a bit of diversity and difference in the expressions through the many Oresha.”

In the U.S., Woodbine typically says that he is a “shaman,” because that term is more commonly used in American culture now, but more properly he is known as a Babalawo within his religious community.


Woodbine began this long journey about two decades ago as a freshman at Yale University, recruited on a basketball scholarship. Very quickly, he became a leading scorer and a big star among Yale fans. In the opening pages of his book, he retells the story of his decision—which made national headlines in 2000—to quit the team and to publicly describe the jarring racial attitudes he had encountered at Yale. Looking back many years later, Woodbine explains that this painful culture clash was due, in part, to his vastly different experience of basketball growing up in Boston.

He writes: “Before Yale, I was raised around Boston’s street-basketball traditions. … The asphalt was a meeting ground for my extended family in the streets. During games we shed tears together, laughed, fought and bonded; our whole lives were centered on the court.”

That turbulent confrontation in 2000 with clashing cultures and, then, a firestorm of public response to his quitting the Yale team, pushed Woodbine eventually into a personal and scholarly exploration of his life, street basketball, and Africa. He wound up spending 10 years, traveling back and forth to Nigeria, taking formal training to become a Yoruba Babalawo. Along the way, he drew inspiration from the writings of American giants such as Howard Thurman, an African-American religious pioneer in the middle of the 20th century. Woodbine honors Thurman on the opening page of his book with these words from Thurman: “We must think and the ghosts shall drive us on.” That line from Thurman really captures the larger narrative surrounding this first book by Woodbine.

“Yoruba culture spread around the world primarily through the slave trade to the United States, the Caribbean and Brazil,” Woodbine says. “The tradition values nature and the God who lives in the earth. The primary way people communicate with the God is through vibrations, through movement either of bodies or hands in ritual processes. There is a lot of music and improvisation. The traditional Yoruba texts are oral. They are living texts. There are many texts that I had to memorize in my process of becoming a Babalawo.

“When I first had the experience of sitting with Yoruba elders, I also discovered that this was a highly philosophical and intellectual tradition as well—something that would take many, many years of study to understand. For me, learning about this tradition after I left Yale had a huge impact on my reading of street basketball.”


Over the past decade, Woodbine says, “we are now seeing some major scholarly works published on the Yoruba tradition. As this work continues, this will solidify our understanding of Yoruba as a world religion and really the only traditional African religious tradition that has become a world religion.”

In Black Gods of the Asphalt, this larger world of emerging Yoruba scholarship is only a small part of the narrative. The main story in these 200 pages concerns basketball players, including Woodbine, and the many personal and spiritual challenges they face.

“My hope is that this book will reach a lot of people, including people in the inner city who live the lives I am describing in this book,” Woodbine said. “I’m trying to show readers that there is so much more to this world than they might assume. This is a world of imagination, a world of spirit. I want to bring that deeper awareness into the open.

“In my work, I want to show that religion is showing up everyday in places where we least expect to find it, perhaps even on the basketball courts in the heart of the city. At the same time, I hope that people who are a part of that urban culture feel more permission to start sharing their wisdom and the knowledge of the community that forms around this culture. If I can draw people out and encourage a deeper public conversation about these ideas, then I have done my work.”



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  1. Benjamin Pratt says

    You are correct! I had no knowledge of the Yoruba tradition. Thank you for this
    thoughtful introduction.