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Ukuthwala, Lobolo and Lwaluko: a summation! – Unedited

Ukuthwala, Lobolo and Lwaluko/koma/lebolo: a summation!

Following three days of discussion on Andile Mngxitama’s Facebook wall about the place of cultural practices in the radical Black Consciousness programme of liberation that he subscribes to, Mngxitama submitted the summation below. The edited version will be published within the following week.

Firstly again thanks for those who took time to debate these difficult cultural trio. After reviewing the material yielded by the debate, I decided not to do a blow by blow account (who said what?) but to zero on the main arguments to try make sense of why the protagonists argue they way they do and also to evaluate these contribution on a standard I have set(arbitrarily, but im happy for others to improve on it or reject it with a more superior standard and argumentation). Also I think our labour should not be reduced to “winning” and “losing” but rather on whether the competing arguments gives clarity and assist us in the quest for total liberation. I will present each of the main arguments as I see them and then refer to some of the entries to illustrate the point im making.

I think it would help to try charecterise the two contending forces in the debate as: African Conservatives(what we have miscalled culturalists one the one hand and on the other black modernists (the black radicals- often seen as agents of Western/white culture by the conservers of African “culture”). What’s ironic about the two forces is that each claim to be fighting for the liberation of black people from white supremacy and colonialism. The one group does this by going back(reclaiming, reviving, protecting, respecting) the other is more focused on the NOW and is forward looking. Often backward looking has meant staying in a place we really have no access or even inadvertently defending colonial constructs as “African culture” at the same time moving forward does comes across as rejecting everything African, therefore re-inscribing the very rhythm of destruction of the colonialists. Often the conservatives have cried: you are helping them destroy African culture!

Going backward and enclosing one self in a historical darkroom or moving forward with no regard of the past are the blind spots of both arguments, if stretched them to their common denominators(lowest levels). Im aware of the nuances involved in both arguments. I hereby wish to emphasise the standard of judgement I have concocted which I think can help us evaluate each of the these argument better. I want to acknowledge that this standard of judgment is something which I myself have arrived at as a result of responding to some of the accusations provided by the conservatives in this debate (so for better of worse this innovation is one good thing that for me has emerged from this two days discussion).

A disclaimer: I write this summation fully aware that im a protagonist in the debate itself. Im a shameless black modernists with huge appetite for radical destruction to realize a new society. But im also an intellectual, this means im interested in evaluating all ideas including my own. Furthermore, I follow Sartre, I middle in other peoples’ affairs, I have no holly cows, nothing shall escape ruthless questioning. I hold very stubbornly to my views until a superior argument has been presented. This summation therefore is not summing up for its own sake it’s a further engagement with the whole debate!

Second point is that we need to all recognize that as we speak we are not standing outside culture. In fact we are in many ways constrained, influenced and shape by our cultures. Therefore, whilst we make claims(philosophical) often in practice we ourselves act like all cultural subjects do. Culture is too involved and domineering project. Often is shapes our souls. But as Fanon so eloquently warns “often what is called African soul is the artifact of the white man”.

Standard of evaluation:

The standard for evaluation I wish to propose is the following: all claims, evidence, experiences which constitute culture must be judged on two accounts ONLY (for the purpose of this discussion on culture)-

Firstly, are these practices helping to fight white supremacy? (Ideologically, philosophically and in practice).

Secondly, do these practices help us end all oppressions including those practiced by ourselves? (here im thinking patriarchy specifically).

I think if we can develop this standard of judgment in the quest for a combative culture, we may need to insert at its core a “bullshit detector”, which would work as a compass for ethical radical behavior at individual level. After a while such a “bd” my be internalized and we then behave as we believe! New blacks!

Having established this fairly “objective” standard of judgment we shall now focus on the arguments themselves. We shall see at the end that perhaps the problem is the expectation that this standard of evaluation should be imposed on the debate , it may well be that the conservatives are not interested in the two measures but are onto something else and then of course its unfair to judge them by this standard. The problem is that for now I read the conservative to say they are for liberation just like the modernists. We need to see if the different claims conform to this standard in reality.

The black modernist standard argument:

Ukuthwala, lobollo and lwaluko are outmoded practices which do not contribute to either fighting white supremacy or ending internal oppressions. In fact a case can be made that these practices are a corruption of colonialism by either being permitted or directly interfered with e.g the number of cattle to paid for in lobolo was determined by colonialists or that the signifiers around ulwaluko( brandy, clothes etc are all western). The modernists argue that White Supremacy(WS) is total and therefore has destroyed/disfigured/permitted all things including the thing we call african culture. From here they conclude that essentially: Blacks are slaves and therefore their culture is the culture of the master! The modernists are extreme existentialists, in the sense that they claim that every cultural expression and practice is merely made (or given) by people at the very specific time to solve a very specific problems. Therefore there is no “sacred” duty to simple honor by mindless repetition what those before us did. For example ukuthwala must have had been a “functional” practice 1000 years ago (consistent with low levels of cultural development- animal level existence)- by the way to say this is not to glorify western cultures, they have gone through the same stages by and large themselves(remember the cave man?). the point is that ukuthwala has no use in today’s society and must be discarded. The modernists have establish the principle of “discarding” what doesn’t work for us, more forcefully!

Another example to buttress the “dynamism of culture” and that cultural practices when they stop serving those who practice them must and can be discarded is the example of how in some African societies one of the twin children was killed back in the day. This I argue was not out stupidity or cruelty it was a functional requirement for the survival of the whole community where mobility was key to survival (its much more difficult to run carrying two little babies). So the intellectuals of the time invented an ideological justification for the material necessity of “culling” the extra child through all sorts of taboos (the extra child bring bad luck, the gods are angry and other such ideological nonsense(all ideology is by and large nonsense to help make sense of life). We do well to remember how king Shaka ended the practice of ulwaluko amongst the Zulu speaking people and use the time to build a great nation!The key principle here is that culture is made, secondly it can and must be discarded the minute it becomes a burden! But thirdly, black cultural practices were not only made by Africans they where later corrupted by whites- therefore the things we call black culture are in the most white creations!

So ukuthwala, lobollo and lwaluko are rejected on the grounds that they oppress women (there is no need to repeat the argument here or the evidence). The defenders of these practices in general do not claim that they don’t oppress women(the intojane example doesn’t work since it prepares women for role of being women in a patriarchal environment). Secondly there is no evidence that maintaining these cultural practices help us fight against white supremacy. There was further evidence that in fact the practice of ulwaluko not only does it promote masculinities of subjugation but also has a tendency to form tribal prejudices. There was no evidence whatsoever presented to show that any of these practices (actively oppose WS or Patriarchy).
On lobolo there was some attempt to say perhaps if women can be allowed to also pay lobolo this could square things up. This was a response to the probing question “why don’t women pay lobola?”. This question was never answered satisfactorily, I argue, because any attempt at answering it leads to exposing the absurdity and patriarchal nature of the lobolo itself. But it must be said that even if women were to pay lobolo for men there is no guarantee that this would change their situation (thinking about the hell women in Indian have to go through to raise the dowry money). Stripped of all frills lobolo has become to mean buying a wife! The conservatives are not going to answer the question- why aren’t women paying lobolo? And the reason is simply there is no non embarrassing answer to that question.

Ntombi’s entry seem to capture well the objection of the black modernist on lobolo:

“Lobola has become even more degrading as it was initially set out to be….if the woman did not graduate from any institution of higher learning the price goes down, if she had children prior to the union the lesser she becomes of value, if she does not have a well paying secure job she is worth even lesser and so on does it go forward degrading the woman her worth and pride! It has not just been limited to it being a capitalist system, but it has become the value scale for a good woman. Sure in society today women should be dependent on themselves, but no dowry payment should be the determining factor of how valuable a woman you are and will be to your partner. It should have been abolished some many years ago!”

On lwaluko it Nick gives in my view the most comprehensive retort which closes the debate, I realize that others may have different experiences, but the essence of the efficacy of the practice judged by the standard we have set is well ventilated here:

“I went through initiation some 10 years ago…the whole event did nothing to me really, other than spend a whole 8 weeks in some cave in Transkei with other initiates, smoking weed (which I never smoked before), teaching each other “bush li…ngo” and using traditional herbs and other methods of healing (which I wont disclose here).
I went there already disciplined, respectful and all that. But I went back to varsity all the xhosa “boys” were referring to me as Ta so and so or bhuti. However the white boys still called me by my first name, they didnt give a fuck!! Nor could I insist they refer to me as Boet so and so..
So was all this pain and suffering for me to be given a new name, and be given a False Elevated Sense of Respect by my immediate community? Even Zulu guys couldn’t be bothered really that I now came back from holidays wearing a jacket in 35 degrees CT heat!!!
I thought my sense of being was bigger than this!! In fact its a lie that Xhosa man or any other initiates come back better because of this Ulwaluko, otherwise we would be living in peace with our women and children without all these so called men committing hideous crimes and all that. This ulwaluko is just plain bullshit…I provide for my family, I mobilise community people’s struggles against this anti black system. I also live well and going to the bush had NOTHING to do with IT”.

Also see below Bafana’s anactotal proposition.

Bafana Mokoena

Lebollo is irrelevant and useless in this day and age,the circumstances and experiences of A young growing up today are not the same as those of his forefathers,so I ask those who practice it….has this culture evolved with changing time,I… would think why take A young modern and teach him about kak from 50 years ago?.go to the vaal and its outskirts and you will see the graduates of this culture,they come back from the mountain as rapists,gangsters and drug induced my hood we’ve even given them the name ontabeni and the community is scared of them.allegedly one of their practices is that when they come from the bush they must have sex to prove that they are men so kidnap and rape young girls to prove it to their peers!!!!

This challenge points to the difficulty of “objective” observable results of ulwaluko. For instance it has been argued that the EC and Limpopo in general doesn’t not show that there is vast differences in how men behave there as in elsewhere- they rape, they abuse, they are irresponsible, they are corrupt like anywhere else. Making the claim of “good” behavior as a result of being a “man” hard to sustain.

The response of the culturalists is that the practice must not fall on account of” isolated cases” of abuse and misrepresentation. However, more fundamentally, the conservatives have failed to answer two questions related to ulwaluko. Firstly, what is “manhood” and what values can be said to be uniquely for men and are not good for women?

I must conclude that the challenges put forward by the modernist and judging by the standard we have set out, there is no other conclusion we can arrive at than that all three practices simply add no value to the struggle for emancipation. Whilst there is some hesitation from the modernist about what to do with ulwaluko, my own view is that, if the black modernist are to consistent and not afraid of their conclusions, then they cant avoid the concluding that ulwaluko must go too! Otherwise they must present a case to show how it can be turned into an instrument of struggle and total liberation!

The Culturalists’: standard argument:

Ukuthwala is not African culture, its an “umkhuba”, bad habit, its illegal and immoral. Lobollo and ulwaluko are African authentic practices and must not be abolished, because they are African cultural expressions (see the tautology?). the culturalists also argue that colonialism was about destroying things African , therefore we cant afford to re-inscribe the colonial violence by attacking and calling for abolishing of our African cultural practices. At best these practices must be up dated. At its extreme version the argument even calls for going back to pre-colonial Africa. There is the added aspects of identity as “spiritual” or not existing in the realm of the understandable and therefore there is a deeper meaning to these things which is not available to rational questioning. Furthermore the traditionalists argue (I think not forcefully enough) that by merely practicing what is called African culture we are already in resistance mode, therefore any call for discarding any of these practices weakens this combative stance. The emphasis is in preserving, defending and even reviving.

Using our standard of judgment is seem the conservatives are arguing in bad faith on ukuthwala, they simply wash their hands of the practice (we cant defend it its not ours!). This is simply arbitrary and irresponsible. Ukuthwala is a practice that continues to day and has a whole series of cultural defenses to justify its perpetuation. The culturalist cant simply chose their cultures conviniently. It must therefore be assumed that the culturalists are faced with a conundrum. The modernists have no qualms with rejecting practices they see as out of sync with their modernist project, the problem with culturalists is that once they reject one practice how do they defend other practices on the basis of “its our culture and our cultures have been destroyed by colonialism”? There is a nervousness that once you agree to discard a practice seen as “African” you are endangering the whole African cultural expression and experience(you have crossed the floor as it were). If the conservatists took seriously their mantra of “culture is dynamic” then they should have no problem pronouncing that ukuthwala is simple bad because it oppresses women and its cruel and outmoded, but it is an African cultural practice nevertheless. As a Lawrence Khoza has shown the culturalist hold on the myth of pre colonial African as “perfect”, and therefore any negative evaluation go against this beautiful myth(im sympathetic to the over compensation after we have been told nothing good can ever come from Africa, but please now we talking amongst ourselves, we must leave the beautiful lies to moments of our encounters with the West, but we cant believe in our own propaganda). The position of culturalists on ukuthwala is a classical case of having your cake and eating it! If the culturalists are permitted to simply pick and chose their cultures then the modernists can also simple say well ulwaluko, lobolo are not African cultures yimikhuba! That would be silly.
Whilst not providing a motivation for denouncing ukuthwala even the culturalists have admitted to its barbarity. The point to make here is that whilst the culturalist have no mechanism to discards harmful aspects of culture(for fear that all of the culture may be fair game) in reality they have been able even through bad faith to distanced themselves from ukuthwala without taking responsibility for it or acknowledging that it’s an African practice. This is their burden they and their consciences will have to deal with.

On lobolo again the defense is that its an African culture. A simple question of why women don’t pay lobolo have not been answered. It’s a little entertaining to think “well no one is arguing that these aren’t African cultures, we only saying aspects of them are harmful and backwards). The question of manhood remains open, again for obvious reason- there is simply no non embarrassing explanation/description of manhood (it irritates “men” that they are being called to articulate what they feel in their souls, more so to discuss the thing that defines their very existence- trauma!). But this manhood has been created from without by very specific socialization process and rituals. This articulation is consistant with the idea of culture presented by the German nonpositivist sociologist, Georg Simmel: “the cultivation of individuals through the agency of external forms which have been objectified in the course of history”. The key point here is the elements of creation by people of a whole ouotlook of life and practices that goes with it. Herein also lies the promise of recreation ourselves for the NOW!

Quite clearly from our standard of judgment the culturalist couldn’t past master. What has been fascinating is that the culturalist seem to say, by merely practicing what they believe to be African cultures somehow this is already a position of resistance. I wish they made this point more explicit and showed how? Also they would have to deal with issue of these cultural practices being corrupted, created, permitted and deformed by colonialism, for instance they haven’t attempted to deal with the undisputable historical fact that it was colonialists who determined the quantum of cattle to be paid for lobolo. This means when they say African culture they actually mean a cultural practice given to us by colonialist! How do we go around this?

There is a structural difficulty in the traditionalists argument and it goes like this: when African practices come under attack such as ukuthwala, lebolo and lwaluko, the standard defense is to question the motive of the critic (this is not a bad thing in itself because often if you aren’t aware of larger agendas at play you can inadvertently serve them, the modernists here can be accused of not paying attention to the western insatiable appetite to destroy things African and therefore in effect any call for destruction plays into the hands of WS). I just think the conservatives don’t make this point more clearly instead they question the motive of the questioner without attempting to answer the question (here the black modernist claim to be for black liberation and are acutely aware of WS so to question their motives is wasted energy- still I think for emotional effect, such accusation does sort of displace the modernists).

When pressed to account for their defense of these practises the Conservatives unwittingly or otherwise end up employing the following strategy: but when these practices where firstly practiced (pre colonial) they were not harmful or our ancestors could never initiate something to deliberately harm us. The argument then goes to say: if these practises have any harm its because of colonialism or its because some rouge elements within the community are now distorting them. The emphasis is always on how great they were and the good intention of the “originators”. See Kekeletso’s input is a classical representation of this strategy:

Kekeletso Khena explaining/defending ukuthwala:

“Andile this is somewhat intricate as an African feminist and to a large extent a traditionalist: I am tempted to say the act was virtual harmless emandulo because of the following factors 1) the girl othwaliwe would have gone through ukwemula making her old enough to marry. 2) once abducted she would be kept in a hut and the husband to be would not dare touch her until all formalities have been concluded with the family 3) during the negotiations her aunts, mothers, neqhikiza lakhe would have come to somehow convince her that marrying into that family would be beneficial. 4) marriage was natural progression so much as she could object there was not much else to do. But our traditional practices have been marred by colonialism and the place of purity from which they were founded has been replaced by oppressive patriarchy which is un African”.

Need I say more? What I find cruel beyond measure is the conservatives attitude towards contemporary suffering! They seem to think “culture” is more important than real people in the now. Kekeletso speaks on behalf of young women she has never met but knows they were prepared for abduction! Can you imagine? The silence on the current reality is what baffles me.
Check this, Bukiwe Gubu reported a terrible situation, she the first person to comment on the status up date on ukuthwala:

“ What’s your plan of action tata… This actually still happens in my mom’s home village and in a recent case when a girl’s uncle intervened he was ostracized by his family because he “thinks he’s better than us…”

Its interesting that this specific case with its clear indication that the practice occurs within a shared meaning system (cultural setting) was overlooked to discuss events of pre-colonial Africa.

Culture as a weapon!

I have tried to think about reconciling some aspects of conservatives with the modernists, im afraid in my meditations I couldn’t find a point of possible synthesis. i see that even in moments where culture was a big factor in fighting colonialism like in the Mau Mau rebellion and the Pondo revolt (see Mamdani’s Citizens and Subjects and also Govern Mbeki’s THE PONDO REVOLT). Even in these moments, culture was rapidly modified as it was being used, the pondos went even further by destroying their Tribal/Chiefly councils and in acted democratic mountain councils! The battle forced these changes and progress was enacted. Chiefs who collaborated where guillotined!

In my sociological studies in Mmaboi in Limpopo (looking at land occupations by the landless an interesting finding was that unmarried women who by culture were not to be allocated land, but since they participated in the land occupation most leading it, this cultural practice was undermined in and changed in reality, of course some traditionalists complained the young women laughed at them even calling them cowards because most didn’t take the risk of occupying land). Here we see that in reality where there is resistance culture alters in reality- or we can say struggle does produce a new culture!
It seem to me that in the literature for radical change there is little to support a backward cultural project. I concede that back to Africa movements are also there such as Credo Mutwa and Leopold Sengor (all dubious projects in my view, but can if appropriately used held ignite re-awakening).

Fanon, Cabral, Biko: in my view would support the position of the modernists. Let’s take some of their arguments to try illustrate the claim.


“The claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native. Perhaps we haven’t sufficiently demonstrated that colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it. This work of devaluing pre-colonial history takes on a dialectical significance today.”

Here I think we can say the traditionalist have a point, but only a half point, in the sense that they pay too much attention on the destruction of our culture by colonialist and end up in a theoretical and philosophical cul de sac. Their project suffers from lack of a “future national culture” and understanding how the de-valuation must be understood as a weapon for the now! There is a sense in which the traditionalist bracket culture from politics and struggle. Its interesting that Biko in “We Blacks” quotes this very paragraph from Fanon without acknowledging him(I suppose for obvious reasons of apartheid restrictions). But Biko whilst ambivalent at times he also end up talking about African culture as ‘Black Modern” culture, focusing on cosmopolitan forms such as jazz and soul which he says give expression better to the essence of African culture. Biko is contradictory on whether colonialism destroyed completely or not African cultural expressions, one point he says they haven’t succeeded another moment he says they have. But I think his warning against negative self perceptions ingrained from colonial attacks on things Africa is a point well taken. Also Biko emphasizes the liberatory aspect of African culture and the need to observe dynamism.

Cabral, who is credited for his call for “the return to the source”, is also futuristic in his mobilization of culture for resistance:
“Culture has to take its place at the heart of the struggle for liberation. Its not enough to talk about arising consciousness, what is important is the type of future we envisage, the kind of social relations we plan to set up and how we prepare for the future”.

Here Cabral echoes Fanon more closely who argued, “it is this that counts, everything else is mystification. It is around the people’s struggle that culture takes on substance, not around songs, poems or folklore”.

What’s interesting is that here we see Biko and Fanon at variance, Biko emphasis song as key in fact, but this must be seen again in the context of struggle, so the disagreement is in reality cosmetic! (I would like to explore this another time).

It seem to me that the conservatives need to do what Biko did in “Some African Cultural Concepts”, he tries very hard to name and isolate the practices worth preserving without being enslaved by the experience of “acculturation” we have gone through. I cant see who Biko would have supported the triad of cultural practices we have been discussing, using his own argument. (I do think that Biko has lapsed that need to be further engaged- I plan to do this soon in fact, focusing on “We Blacks and Some African Cultural Concepts”). I do believe that even with those lapses Biko is actually a black radical modernist! His strength, I think lies in his ability to name the cultural practiced that he sees as progressive and locating them within resistance for the future! He is not defending culture because its African culture! He is in some ways subordinating culture to the demands of struggle!

Psychoanalyzing the Culturalist!

Let us conclude with a little exercise in psychoanalysis. I have argued elsewhere that there may be good reasons why the traditionalist argue so hard for their culture even when there are no basis for such. My take is that this is the outcomes of a sad fact. The whites took and destroyed everything which is black. As a result we are put in a position where we blindly have to defend things African (they took everything now even this? The culturalists seem to say). This is not an unreasonable response from a people buttered so long and so brutally. Its only that we need to raise above this self sabotaging impulse. We blacks cant be men in slavery! But more now we need to obliterate the categories of man and woman as given to us by history. There is a silver lining on this dark cloud, history gives us a change to re-create ourselves on a new basis. Let’s agree here, no one is saying we must destroy all African systems, the modernist is saying articulate and isolate that which needs preserving and discard that which bring death and oppression. Name these practices and show how they help in the fight against WS and show how they help towards total liberation!
Fanon long time ago tried to explain this very same problem of the culturalists:
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are
presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new
evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is
extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it
is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize,
ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.”

Im afraid my brothers and sistas in the culturalist group need to work through this observation. I think the charge of modernist being agents of western culture need better elaboration in the view of the exposition I have give. I do think that the tendency of modernist to bracket off intra black debate to provide an internal critic has to always start by acknowledging that our cultures have been abused and destroyed by western progroms and make it clear that ours is not part of that project but rather an attempt at providing a way out of contemporary oppression which is historically created. im saying the modernists take for granted that since they are fighting WS that is enough and don’t take enough care to acknowledge the past but never be detained by it like the conservatives. its no longer enough that we modernists say we fighting WS, we need to distance ourselves better from the white systems and make our project clearer if we seek not to be confused with agents of colonialism.

Some concluding remarks:

I hate proposals but im going to make some. Firstly, it would be great to see if the standard of judgment I have used here is justifiable, and then subject the modernists argument more rigorously to it and see if another conclusion is possible.
I think for now the conservatives can only save themselves by arguing more explicitly that their project is more metaphysical, spiritual and not of this world and therefore to insist that culture be judged on the standard set is not only unfair but misguided. In other words, we shall then say we are dealing with different categories and therefore cant insist in judging them on the same standard. To date this argument has not been made and hence the general negative conclusion seem justifiable.

I think we can say that there is total consensus on the need to end ukuthwala from both contending forces for reasons provided. I will not repeat the dilemmas the conservatives need to still deal with unless they concede bad faith on their part.

On lobollo, whilst there is no consensus, however when judged on the standard set it points to the same conclusion as as ukuthwala. There is room for possible modifications which would not re-enact the auction block types of exchanges. But the idea of paying lobolo in the current form cant be sustained judging by our standard. Im not going to speculate on what sorts of things we can do to celebrate “marriage” or union of two people (note I have not enternained a very important question raised by the lekwerekwere- that if we end the very institution of marriage then the debate on lobolo falls away- im partial to that suggestion but not sure if it has space here).
Ulwaluko also cant past master either. From a modernist view, it has to be brought to an end in its current form. Innovation can include seclusion for re-education. All young men and women could be taken out of society for an intensive education on radical black politics, radical history and weapons of war! The idea of pain and endurance to be a man must be scraped totally, the removal of the foreskin must become a voluntary process and as value free as piercing ones ear. No acknowledgment, deference, respect etc must be conferred on the basis of one having cut his foreskin. In fact a big move for “modernization” must be undertaken where the practice is steep, such a move must be ideological and philosophical. But we have to make it clear that the new rites of passage must be based on a total different conceptualization of the idea of a man and woman, and at its core must be about the liberation of our people from white supremacy.


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