Saint Augustine was born in Hippo, a Roman city in modern Algeria in AD 354. We do not know his skin colour or ethnicity.
Augustine’s mother was Monica. Her name is thought by anthropologists to have been a derivative from the ancient Berber god, Mon. The Berber people are indigenous to North Africa.
So was Augustine a Berber? We do not know. Even though he wrote a lot about himself, the great man did not say what his ethnicity was.
Can we call him African? Yes.
But perhaps, the best place to start an argument on Augustine’s Africanness is from the academic area he is most noted in: Philosophy.
As one of the most prolific writers known to the modern world, Aurelius Augustinus wrote several works that have become reference points in matters of law, love, politics, economics, faith and even the philosophy of education.
The Roman Catholic Church and the whole of Christendom of today tap from the well that is Augustine.
Even though he built many of his arguments on the rationalism of Plato, Augustine’s thoughts are so original that he has become institutionalised. It is not uncommon to hear the adjective “Augustinian” in a philosophy class.
For Africans and people of African origin who heard his name in a philosophy class, they could be forgiven for not knowing they had some affinity with him.
This problem of African connection or content is in itself a problem in African academia, and it exposes the Augustinian situation for us.
For many African academic philosophers, the task has always been two-fold. The first part is to learn as much as you can about what you’re told Europeans picked up from the ancient Greeks and the Romans.
The second part is dicier. You are then to use the tools bequeathed by the Europeans and their intellectual forebears to mould your narrative of self, community and world.
It is no wonder that one of the most contentious subjects you may discuss in the philosophy department of an African university is “What is African philosophy?”
Within that question contains other more headaches such as, “Who is African?” and “What is African?”
The various responses to these questions tend to border on the geographical origins, ethnic heritage and the subjects treated by those we may call philosophers.
Admittedly, there are no hard and fast rules on the boxes to tick before one may be called an African philosopher.
For instance, Frantz Fanon was not born in Africa but to a lot of academics, his dispositions on subjects such as white supremacy and colonialism, tend to make him an “African” philosopher.
Albert Camus was born in Algeria yet it is not difficult to find materials in which he is described as a “French” philosopher.
And so by what standard are we to call the very revered St. Augustine African?
Augustine probably never thought of himself as an African. He was a Roman citizen, who was literate in Latin and knowledgeable in Roman ways.
If he ever thought of his ethnic identity, we did not read it in his autobiography, Confessions.
Writing for the UK’s Catholic Herald, Father Alexander Lucie-Smith argued: “… this would have been a discussion that Monica and Augustine themselves would never have had”.
But with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see why Augustine did not care about his ethnicity or “African” identity. Back in the 4th century AD, his ethnicity was not a scale upon which his humanity was measured.
His Romanness matters but not his Africanness.
Augustine lived at least, one thousand years before Caucasians decided one’s ethnicity could be a disqualifier.
Augustine’s time was before the fraudulent subject of scientific racism. Augustine of Hippo lived before Henri de Boulainvilliers, Carl Linnaeus, Christoph Meiners and the hundreds who reasoned in amazingly backward ways to prove the inferiority of non-Caucasian people.
Often times when scientific racism in European Enlightenment is brought up, it is dismissed as a temporary blip. But this was a whole movement spanning centuries.
For hundreds of years, people went to school and became famous after theorising that Caucasity was the epitome of humanity. These theories supported arguments in politics, economics, religion among others.
As far as Africans and people of African origin are concerned, race as a marker of sociopolitical and cultural disparities is the making of people of European origin.
This brings us back to Augustine and why his Africanness is important to us. The movement towards having one of the Catholic Church’s fathers identified as African is a consequence of race consciousness.
In other words, we are looking out for one of our own in a world in which we are told we come last. By claiming Augustine, we are empowering our kind.
Augustine’s Africanness matters because of his relevance to Western culture. If his intellect is that exceptional yet he is not typically one of “their own”, his own will claim him.
This has, however, led to a wave of cynicism from Western scholars about the apparent non-issue of Augustine’s heritage. Their point is that since race or ethnicity was not of relevance in his time, where Augustine comes from should not characterise our relationship to him.
Father Lucie-Smith entertains this thought. But this dismissal is rooted in obligatory myopia.
In fairness, some Western scholars think Augustine was Berber.
Gerald Bonner wrote in Augustine of Hippo, saying, “There is no reason to suppose that he was of any but Berber stock.”
In The Richness of Augustine, Mark Ellingsen notes that three main ethnic groups existed in Augustine’s Hippo: Punics, immigrants from Italy and Berbers.
Ellingsen is convinced that by virtue of the etymology of his mother’s name, Augustine was a Berber and dark-skinned too.
There are yet other writers who say he was Berber but not dark-skinned.
If one takes a step back, we may concede the topic of a great scholar’s Africanness may have been moved by European paternalism.
Africans and people of African origin do not argue over Cicero or Plato’s Europeanness or white skin. Yet these men are considered patriarchs of the great tradition of European intellectualism.
If Augustine’s Africanness is deemed a question not to be asked, it will be easy for those who have always written the annals of history to claim him as one of their own.
To understand this better, one may want to search for a portrait of Augustine on the internet and count how many results one sees of him depicted as a black man.
Augustine’s Africanness matters to a people who have for hundreds of years been denigrated because of supposed dumbness.
That one of the most intelligent men known to us was born in Africa and could possibly be Berber and could have had dark skin means so much we cannot apologise for.