Posted on May 4, 2023

Augustine’s African Heritage Matters

Tia Noelle Pratt, U.S. Catholic, April 28, 2023

St. Augustine was an African man. For many years, I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of this because his African identity was usually muted in favor of describing him as a North African citizen of the Roman Empire with a distinct emphasis on “North” and “Empire.” Currently, the United States Census classifies individuals of Middle East and North African (MENA) descent as white. Consequently, emphasizing that St. Augustine was North African allows him, especially in the United States, to be racially coded as white. At the very least, it allows for deemphasizing his Amazigh origins—the endonymic term for the people of North Africa.

Villanova University, one of two Augustinian higher education institutions in the United States, seeks to shift the narrative around St. Augustine through its ongoing commitment to become an anti-racist institution. An initiative that promises to be hugely consequential for Villanova came to fruition on November 3, 2022, when the university’s president, Augustinian Father Peter Donohue, unveiled a newly commissioned portrait of St. Augustine. Now part of the university’s permanent art collection, An Unlikely Aquilegia: North African Saint of Hippo was created by Texas-based artist, Vernon Adams. {snip}

This painting invites a new conversation around St. Augustine. In the context of long-standing and lingering consequences of slavery and colonialism, this artwork invites us all into conversation around what it means for the Catholic Church to have an African man as one of its greatest writers and thinkers. {snip}

{snip} Depicting St. Augustine as a Black man actively decenters whiteness and demands that we all recognize what it means for the church, the academy, and the world to acknowledge the depth and breadth of the intellectual and cultural gifts Africa has given the world. Centuries of slavery and colonialism not only robbed the African continent of so many of its treasures, but also robbed Africa of credit for those treasures. By racially coding St. Augustine as white, he became one of those treasures for which Africa was not given due credit. This painting compels us to think of St. Augustine as an African man and render to Africa that which is Africa’s.