Arts & Culture / Politics / Vol 3. No. 1

Blood Orange & Saint Augustine

Todd Strong, Fire

Image Credit: Todd Strong, Fire, (2019), etching ink on paper, monoprint, 18×24″. Courtesy of the artist.

As a cisgender, pasty-white man, I’m often buffered from reality. Worse still, I’ve cloistered myself away from contemporary life by becoming a scholar of medieval theology. But recently, like a revelation, Youtube’s algorithms have connected me with an enchanting music video by Blood Orange.

This song, “Augustine,” is a sensual, upbeat dance hit that borrows lines from Saint Augustine’s Confessions to elegize Trayvon Martin. Usually, I imagine that there is little overlap between fans of medieval spirituality and twenty-first-century R&B.

But Blood Orange and Augustine—now put into conversation through the song and video—are offering a vision of human identity both within and beyond such divides.

Or, if the contemporary body politic is rent asunder by oppositions between “black lives matter” and “all lives matter,” then the song channels Augustine in seeking a higher sense of why life matters, if at all.


Listen, please, as Blood Orange opens “Augustine” with a spoken-word poem about how their experience is a lens for grappling with state-sanctioned violence:

My father was a young man
My mother, off the boat
My eyes were fresh at 21
Bruised, but still afloat

This is an autobiography of queer, black love—and perhaps this is not easy to reconcile with modern Catholicism.

But this is, actually, Augustine’s preferred, medieval mode of spiritual meditation.

Augustine wrote The Confessions because he believed that autobiography is the first, best method for seeking God (who, dwelling within everyone, can be found by painstakingly probing one’s life).

Augustine, then, had probed his own particular life—the life of a queer person of color, who hailed from North Africa (an ethnic Berber) and who now is understood to be (for lack of an historicistically precise term) bisexual.

I am pruriently thrilled by the intensity of Augustine’s relationships with other men. But The Confessions is also suffused with eros: all of Augustine’s relationships are passionate. His love affair with Saint Monica, his mother, is an affair of prophetic dreams, tearful departures, mystical transports. And most of all, Augustine’s heart is burning for God.


In “Augustine,” Blood Orange tenderly eulogizes Trayvon, borrowing lines from The Confessions:

Late have I loved and chose to see

[…] Cry and burst my deafness
While Trayvon falls asleep

For contemporary listeners, this sounds like a kind of post-modern “resampling.” But the technique actually reflects a profound absorption of fifth-century literary practice.

The Confessions, too, is composed of borrowed lines. Nearly every sentence is peppered with phrases drawn from Scripture or ancient poetry.

And in Book X of The Confessions, Augustine explicitly theorizes why he uses such allusions. Not coincidentally, it is from Book X that Blood Orange borrows these lines from The Confessions.2


In Book X, Augustine explains that time is made up of broken bits. For example, the past, present, future. But eternity, in contrast, is a kind of wholeness that holds all of time’s fractured parts.

For Augustine, when we cite “old” literature in “new” ways, we are mimicking the process of redemption—the process by which God’s love heals the broken parts of time and draws them back into eternity, when the old is radically reborn as new.

And Augustine believed that the wounded body of Christ has drawn all of humanity back together into a new, loving body—a redemption constantly enacted in the sacrament of the Eucharist (that bland, white cracker that priests break apart and feed to congregants, who mystically become a communal body of One).

This is an ethics of becoming a corporate body—as Blood Orange uses, for the singular, the pronoun “they.”

This sensibility is expressed in Book X as Augustine sings a prayer of his own:

Late have I loved Thee, O Lord; and behold,
Thou didst call, and cry, and burst my deafness.

Late have I loved Thee, Thou Beauty ever old and ever new.3


At the opening of “Augustine,” Blood Orange’s fingers play at the keys of a keyboard, and the sound of the keyboard enters. But Blood Orange is seated on the trunk of a moving car and is playing at no piano.

The physical sounds have a real presence, but the pianist is miming in the air. The effect is to deny that physicality alone is a criterion for identity and existence. The music appears to have descended from the spirit. Already the video is expanding the self beyond disenchanted modernity.


Promiscuously, the video lingers on all kinds of human bodies. And the movements of these bodies are choreographed, in order to fashion corporate bodies that are made of many distinct, individual bodies.

At 0:45, for example, a photograph shows an ensemble of entangled limbs, intermingling and indeterminate. Please pause the video and look closely. This photo shows the suffocated body of Eric Garner, whose twisted limbs are intermingled with those of a swarm of police officers.

These broken bodies form a diabolic body politic—like the monstrous zombie bodies in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, grafted together through demonic forces.

Yet at 0:48, “Augustine” shows another still photograph. This image echoes the image of Garner. But the photo shows a team of black dancers. They are also organized to become a mass of many limbs. But they are now noble, powerful.

From unjust murder by the state, which had produced a subjugated, brutalized body, there emerges a new corporate body that is dancing even in suffering. This is the re-membering of the world’s broken parts.


In “Augustine,” visual juxtapositions reflect an absorption of Augustine’s theory of interpretation.

Through his career, Augustine read the Bible by using techniques of juxtaposition. Comparing the Hebrew Bible with the Gospels, for example, Augustine juxtaposed symbols and figures (like the Passover and the Crucifixion, Eve, and Mary).

These juxtapositions do not evacuate difference ( that is, they do not suggest that “Eve” actually is “Mary”). Yet they do not insist that difference is insurmountable. Instead, by drawing together two different figures in comparison, the juxtapositions presume a third, spiritual dimension that is the basis for finding similarity across differences.

Observing difference while finding commonality is what Augustine would call love, or God.4


Blood Orange uses this technique of juxtaposed images again when, visually, Augustine himself appears in the video.

In the video at 0:58, Augustine and Thelonious Monk are juxtaposed in matching profiles. A cropped image from Botticelli’s 1480 painting, Saint Augustine in His Study, corresponds compositionally with a photograph of Monk from the cover of Time magazine (February 28, 1964).5

Their profiles and hats neatly match. And Time reveals that Hynes’s visual pun is no trivial joke. The issue’s cover article, “The Loneliest Monk,” is a fully medievalizing portrait of the jazz legend. According to Time, Monk’s own name is “mystical” and “sounds like an alchemist’s formula.” Time insinuates that Monk is a “monk” in the religious sense: “he’s a recluse” whose artistry comes from “high philosophy” and “conviction.” When he plays the piano, “his eyes are hooded with an abstract sleepiness, his lips are pursed in a meditative O.”

The article—even in its questionable, beatnik exoticism—affirms that Augustine and Monk are contemporary and congruent. They share in a vocation and in a mission.


The old is made new again. Lyrical citation brings Augustine into dialogue with Trayvon, as the song celebrates a love between males:

See, Augustine
Late have I loved and chose to see
Skin on his skin
A warmth that I can feel with him

Not necessarily sexual, but embodied and desiring, love is a vector of the desiring soul.

Like Augustine’s desire—restlessly grasping toward many objects, seeking within the created order for some sign of the Creator—the lyrics are a flux of desire’s quest. Hear, for example, how “son” is juxtaposed with “lover”:

And no one even told me
The way that you should feel
Tell me, did you lose your son?
Tell me, did you lose your love?
Cry and burst my deafness
While Trayvon falls asleep

Desire slips from one human object (“son”) to another human object (“love”), and then moves back to God (by citing Augustine’s prayer to the deity, “Cry and burst my deafness”). And then desire moves to a very particular human, Trayvon.

What sustains the self through these vicissitudes is desire, descending from and returning to the spiritual realm, but fully enmeshed in erotic contact. With skin. Warmth. Incarnation.6


I have not yet fully discussed the video’s nostalgia, its clever use of 1980s style.

At 1:52, a dancer wears a vintage “Peace Corps” tee-shirt. The tee-shirt is not just hipster irony, but a sly commentary on how colonial enterprises like the Peace Corps can become—on the voguing body of a black man—part of a vocabulary of liberation.

These retro touches position the video as a riposte to Madonna–not only to her appropriation of vogueing, but to her 1989 song “Like a Prayer.” That video also appropriated Catholic iconography in order to critique racist police violence. But Madonna’s efforts are confused, glib. “Like a Prayer” is full of banal sex puns (e.g., “down on my knees”). And the video’s racial politics are a white-supremacist apologetics—the police simply make an honest mistake, and everything works out in the end, just like the real America!


My own meditations here have perhaps been too optimistic: I should not indulge in fantasies that occlude the pain that has occasioned this song.

At 0:41, a singer drives a car while Blood Orange plays their mystical piano on the car trunk. But suddenly the driver is no longer joyriding: with a jerk of the camera and a scratch of the record, she is looking fearfully into the brutalizing gaze of a bodycam.

At 4:10, Blood Orange is in Washington Square Park, singing solo among a group of dancers. The shot is framed to make Blood Orange’s face look like the head for a corporate body of limbs and torsos.

And as Blood Orange sings, they gesture with their arms, pushing outward as if releasing a spiritual energy. At 4:13, the scene cuts quickly away, with a split-second frame that contains a subliminal symbol as a circular hole is burning through the celluloid.

This hole, imperceptible, appears at the precise location of Blood Orange’s torso. It is as if a bullet has pierced the film. It is as if a bullet has pierced their body.

It is as if, too, the song has forced this hole into Being, distending beyond the tissue of the video, cutting a wormhole into the fabric of space-time, opening up a paradoxically redemptive wound, juxtaposing the past with the present, letting each touch the other in love, however horrible.



1 “Augustine, Blood Orange,” Genius, November 9, 2019,

2 Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008), 245-46.

3 Wikipedia contributors, “Augustine of Hippo,” in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, n.d., Accessed November 9, 2019.

4 See Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, ed. by Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

5 Performance Review, “The Loneliest Monk,” TIME Magazine, February 28, 1964, 100-109.

6 See Virginia Burrus, Mark D. Jordan, Karmen MacKendrick, Seducing Augustine: Bodies, Desires, Confessions (Bronx: Fordham University Press, 2010).

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