Donna Haskins defeats the devil

Onaje X. O. Woodbine’s book about a Black woman’s life is a model of ethnographic work that centers the voice of its subject.

Ms. Donna Haskins appears briefly in Onaje Woodbine’s 2016 study Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop, and Street Basketball. A young man named Jason meets “a lady of God, a voice of God,” who provides counsel after he’s injured in a college basketball game. Later she channels the voice of one of Jason’s ancestors to tell him that he’s meant for greatness and will be a minister of God. Although Haskins is a minor character in the story, Woodbine hints at her larger significance in his analysis of Jason: “Black male athletes cannot achieve spiritual freedom from the hegemonic forces of culture without realizing the ultimate value of women.” He adds, “God may be at the apex of Jason’s hoops theology, but ancestors mediate God’s grace on the court.”

These two conclusions—that women are crucial (and often marginalized) in Black communities and that the living can connect with the dead in tangible ways—emerge fully, beautifully, and startlingly in Woodbine’s second book, Take Back What the Devil Stole, which tells the story of Haskins’s life. It’s a compelling story because it is simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary.

What’s ordinary—and tragic in its ordinariness—is the depth of suffering Haskins experiences throughout her life. Shaped by a childhood in public housing that was designed to be isolated from Boston’s economic opportunities and social services, she endures inadequate public education, sexual assaults, police brutality, substandard medical care during cancer treatment, intimate partner violence, persistent poverty, and the thousands of everyday indignities that come from being a poor Black woman in America.