Sword and shield. Down. Down. Both of em down. Down by the riverside. Sword and shield. Don’t study war no more. Lay all that mess down. Sword and shield. 1
A woman is a biological weapon.2 A weapon in a war fought against other men, other people. An oozing, leaking, contaminated zone of infection, of a porous body that bleeds into the environment3 as much as the environment, and the men in it, are taken up. And the black woman becomes the ultimate weapon, simultaneously orientalised4 and reviled. Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel Beloved illustrates two separate aspects of woman as a weapon, seen in the main characters Sethe and Beloved herself. While both deserve equal consideration, the limitations of space demand that this essay only address Sethe.
The weaponisation of Sethe begins when she is turned into a commodity, sold, at the beginning of her tender teenage years. But the contamination of Sethe begins much, much earlier than this. Originally, she was separated from her mother and raised by a wet nurse; this was done at such a young age that she could not recognize her own mother, even in death.5 Her mother, a slave from Africa, nursed the babe Sethe for only 2-3 weeks before the babe was removed and she was sent back to work. Sethe then nursed at the breast of Nan, another transported slave. This breaking of the bond of mother and child can be seen as the first step in Sethe’s contamination; instead of being fed from the natural source for a child, her mother, Sethe is given the fluids of another. While this might not appear to be a significant step in the contamination and eventual weaponisation of Sethe, it is important to consider this in light of Elizabeth Grosz’s understanding of Mary Douglas’s notions of the dirty body. “Dirt, for her, is that which is not in its proper place, that which upsets or befuddles order.”6 There is nothing much more upsetting of the natural order than a child being breastfed the fluids of another woman.
We then jump to the contaminated Sethe, already unable to participate in a normal familial relationship, being sold to the Garner farm. Here she becomes the object of desire7 for the black men, who resort to the “taking of cattle” and dreaming of rape to quench their lust of the thirteen-year old girl. After a year of contaminating the thoughts of these men, Sethe makes her choice in Halle, and they lay together amongst the corn; Halle is now no longer merely mentally but also physically contaminated with Sethe, and he has contaminated her for other men.8 The other men of Sweet Home acknowledge her choice and from that point treat her with respect, distance, and brotherly affection.
Sethe bears Halle three children, and is pregnant with her fourth when the small family makes the decision to remain a family, and to run to join Halleâ’s mother. And at this point, Sethe becomes a weapon. Her children packed up and sent ahead, the youngest born still suckling, she remains behind to search for Halle, and is accosted in the barn by the nephews (or perhaps sons) of the schoolteacher.9 They sexually assault her, one boy with “mossy teeth” holding her down while the other physically takes her milk by sucking it from her breast. While this attack takes place, the schoolteacher watches and records everything–as does Halle, trapped in the loft above Sethe and the boys. Like many biological weapons, when she is set off, Sethe harms more than just the immediate target, although in this case, the full damage of the weapon will not be immediately seen. In fact, the immediate damage only comes to Sethe herself, who in telling Mrs. Garner of her violation finds herself beaten until her back opens up, for the disobedience of telling. But the invisible victim is Halle, who witnesses the assault on his wife and goes mad. She is used as a weapon, a means of hurting and ultimately destroying him; he knows that he will never be able to look at her again, both because the violation of his possession10 and his inaction towards it, and goes so mad as to simply sit, smearing butter on his face and obsessing over the stolen milk.11
Milk stolen, body broken, believing her husband to have abandoned her pregnant body and their children, Sethe still sets out to follow the caravan to Cincinnati, motivated by the knowledge that her youngest born child needed her milk, and her unborn child needed her life. At this point, the division between Sethe’s inside and outside has collapsed; her body has become visibly permeable and porous;12 her breast milk is flowing freely, seeping into the environment around her. And as it flows, it attracts the outside environment to her body, in the form of small insects and grasshoppers, and it announces her presence, in the form of a strong smell and visible marking on her dress, to the world at large.13
Sethe eventually makes it to her destination, House 124, along with Denver, the child born from the trauma en route. And for a short while, it appears that the weapon of Sethe has been spent, and she will be able to live the remainder of her life with her children, in happiness. But in quick succession, Sethe’s presence contaminates life at House 124. The first sign of this comes three weeks after Sethe’s arrival, with Baby Suggs happy enough at the freedom of her daughter-in-law and newest granddaughter. With the enabling of juicy berries picked by Stamp Paid, a feast is had, shared with all in the neighborhood, ninety people who woke up resenting the bounty and generosity of excess given in thanks for Sethe and Denver’s presence.14 But this poisoning of relations merely masked the darker threat coming, that of the schoolteacher, a mossy-toothed boy, the sheriff, and the slave-catcher. And at this point, the weapon of Sethe, unleashed on her assault at the hands of those nephews, finishes itself in the murder of Beloved.
The knives of regret, of misery and defense, of ways of being and coping with a world out to get you for being you–these things Sethe is urged to lay down, put aside, let go. Let go and move on. But how do you move on in a world that isn’t out to get just you, but is out to get everyone equally,15 and is comfortable using you in its battle against everyone else? When you are not only a participant in the war, but a weapon?
Lay down your sword. This ain’t a battle, it’s a rout.
This is also known as “my homage to Andrew Hughes”. Heh.
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