The short story ‘‘Everyday Use’’ by Alice Walker describes the encounter of the educated and independent daughter Dee, her mother and the younger sister Maggie, who live a simple and traditional life together.
A conflict between the different understandings of culture and traditions arises, when Dee wants to claim two old quilts which her mother had previously promised to Maggie.
This short summary is meant to briefly display the facts and introduce the reader to the subject dealt with in this short story. The story’s central theme concerns the way different individuals understand their culture in relation to their present life.
The following analyses of this text will use Walker’s personal situation with regard to her heritage to show how critical circumstances and outer influences affected her writing of this story. It will also go into further detail about the historical background that goes hand in hand with Walker’s experiences.
2. FACTS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Poet, novelist and womanist are only some of the names Alice Walker has been given for her written works. Born the eighth child of a Southern sharecropper and a part-time maid, Walker has climbed the ladder of success to become one of America’s most gifted and influential writers.
Her works include short stories, essays and novels that are always clearly centered around the struggles and hardships of black women.
Walker uses the writing as her medium to spread her word and to process experiences of her own family and childhood. Her writing exposes the complexi- ties of the ordinary by presenting it within a context of ambiguity and change; she peels back the hard- layered cover of African American women’s lives to reveal the naked truth and hope, as she explains:
‘‘The black woman is one of America’s greatest heroes (…). She has been oppressed beyond recognition.’’1
Alice Walker is one of the first African American women to explore the paralyzing effects of being a woman in a world that virtually ignores issues as black-on-black oppression.
In 1983, her novel ‘‘The Color Purple’’ received the Pulitzer Prize and elevated her to world -wide fame. Her efforts, however, have not always received favorable reception among blacks. She has aquired notoriety for her taboo-breaking and morally challenging depictions of African American passions and oppressions.
2.1 Paralleles between Walker’s life and ‘‘Everyday Use’’
Born in the rural South, in the state of Georgia, as the youngest child, Alice Walker was taught from an early age on, that being African American can have its rough times.
One of the story’s main characters, Maggie, is a direct relation to the beginning of Walker’s life. She appears to be a young woman, even though her exact age is not given. Many years ago, Maggie was hurt in a house fire, after which she walked ‘‘(…) chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, (…).’’2 and was very ashamed of her looks. In relation, Alice’s older brother shot her in the eye while playing ‘‘Cowboy and Indian’’ with her. She remained blinded on one eye and had the feeling of being unpleasant to look at, which caused her to seclude herself from other children in her age.
In addition, the character of Dee seems to be a detailed describtion of Walker’s sister Molly3.
As well as Dee, she stems from a poor hard-working family and was given the chance to attend college4. Despite her education, she shunned her family for their traditional, black lifestyle and envisioned to become part of a prosperous, white society by denying her original heritage.
3. STYLE AND TECHNIQUE
Walker conveys her message through the voice of a flexible, observant first- person narrator. It is the mother's point of view which allows the reader to understand both Dee’s and Maggie's characters and positions. The mother’s narrating perspective provides objectivity from which she can overlook all situations. She reports in an independent, unbiased tone that doesn’t frankly show favoritism to any one of her daughters and gives the reader a chance to make up his own opinion about one’s understanding of culture and heritage.
4. THE CULTURAL CONFLICT IN ‘‘EVERYDAY USE’’
4.1 The main characters
The differences of the sisters’ understandings of culture come out in Walker’s contrasting of the personalities of Dee and her mother.
Dee can be seen to represent a materialistic and modern way of life where culture and heritage are to be valued only for their trendyness. The mother, on the other hand, leads a content, simple, and practical life in which the heritage is appreciated both for its usefulness as well as its personal significance.
These two extremes are opposed by the character of the younger daughter Maggie.
Raised by her mother in a traditional and simple manner, her personality and habits were shaped correlatively from an early age on. In the story, her character serves the purpose of elucidating the intensely distinct standpoints towards culture between her and her sister.
Clues about the role distributions are found in Walker's physical descriptions of the characters.
The mother describes herself as ‘‘(...) a large, big-boned woman with rough manworking hands.’’5 with fat that can keep her ‘‘(...) hot in zero weather.’’6 She proudly adds how she ‘‘(...) can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man.’’4. None of these things are particularly glamorous, but it is Walker's intention to show that through her heritage the mother possesses skills of her predecessors. These abilities make her tough and independent.
Maggie, the daughter at home, is shy and scared and remains by her mother's side as an obedient shadow. As well as her mother, she is not physically attractive or stylish. Her body is covered with burn scars and her walking is described as that o f ‘‘(...) a lame animal, perhaps a dog (...).’’7. However, by helping her mother in their daily life, she becomes accustomed to using old hand- made tools from her ancestors and therewith learns their history.
This is exemplified by Maggie’s knowledge of the dasher’s origin - she instantly knows where it comes from, ‘‘Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash. His name was Henry, but they called him Stash.’’8 - this is a knowledge which Dee does not possess.
Maggie and her mother are the ones who truly appreciate the treasures that carry the memories and traditions of earlier family members. They symbolize the connection betwe en generations and the heritage that passed between them in their frugal but contented life.
Dee, on the other hand, is described as being light skinned, with nice hair and a full figure. She gives the impression that she ‘‘(...) has held life always held in the palm of one hand, (...).’’9. Being the only person in the family who ever attended college she still is narrow-minded and materialistic. Her conception of culture lies in tangible things that depict her heritage, i.e. the dasher of ‘‘beautiful yellow wood’’10, which shows finger imprints of former users.
The day she finally returns home to visit her family, her first thing to do is taking Polaroid pictures of her family and their house. On every shot she makes sure the house is visible in the background11, which confirms the assumption that Dee fails to understand that material things do not carry the real cultural heritage.
4.2 The Black Power Movement
‘‘Black Power’’ was a political movement expressing a new racial consciousness among blacks in the United States in the late 1960s. It represented both a conclusion to the decade's civil rights movement and a reaction against the racism that persisted despite the efforts of black activists. A big wave, under the motto ‘‘Black is beautiful’’, flooded the country. Black Americans started to seek their cultural roots in Africa, without knowing too much about the continent and its history.
Alice Walker, on the other hand, had lived in Africa long enough to see the difference between the reality there and the Africa praised by the black population. She criticizes the people’s shallow knowledge of Africa in subtle terms by incorporating this conflict into ‘‘Everyday Use’’.
In the story, Dee is portrayed as the perfect example of the black student seeking for an African backround. She has always had a strong personality12, but nevertheless, she is very pliable when it comes to new trends, in this case the ‘‘Black Power Movement’’.
Once she discovers the trend of glorifying African culture roots, she quickly adapts to it and attempts to milk her own heritage for all its artistic and monetary worth.
This stands in conflict with her former disposition for she had despised her black roots when she was still living together with her family as she blamed her heritage for their poor lifestyle and living conditions13.
Dee’s intentions become obvious in her greeting of the family. She makes use of the African ‘‘Wa-su-zo-Tean-o’’14, which is a phrase of the Buganda people of Uganda and means ‘‘Good morning’’.
By this, she probably tries to hint criticism towards her mother’s way of practicing culture, as she is so wrapped up in living her traditions that she does not appreciate and acknowledge her African roots.
4.2.1 Dee’s change of name
Another significant example of Dee’s understanding, provides the matter of her name change to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Evidently, she has chosen her new name to express solidarity with her African ancestors and to reject the oppression implied by the taking on of American names by black slaves15. This again clarifies her attitude towards culture and heritage, as she wants to deny her history by taking on a different name.
She disregards the importance of the fact that she was named after her aunt Dicie16, and that the name Dee is symbolic of family unity as the mother ‘‘probably could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches.’’17. The aspect of the discarding one’s name for the sake of a trend is a matter of personal importance to Walker.
She continually criticized the tendency among African Americans of trading in their names for African names that do neither embody any personal history nor relate to persons they know.18
‘‘The magic of naming is that people often become what they are called.’’19
The criticism becomes obvious when looking at Dee’s new African identity. The first name Wangero, for example, could resemble a Kik uyu name, a small people in Kenya. It exists as Wanjiru which is one of their nine clan names.
Leewanika, the middle name, resembles Lewanika, who was a Zambian king in Barotseland from 1842 to 1916. Walker might have chosen that name for Dee, who ‘‘knew what style was’’20, on purpose ‘‘to let her assume a royal touch as an African princess.’’21.
Seen in the context of this story, Walker probably meant to emphasize Dee’s superficial interest in her heritage by having her take on a mixture of names from different ethnic groups.
4.3 The tradition of quilting
Quilting is an old tradition still being practiced today. It is the stitching together of hundreds of tiny pieces of fabric from clothes of deceased family members in certain patterns. They are supposed to preserve the history and the memory of the ancesto rs as quilts are not only to be seen as blankets but comprise the story of a family over many generations.
For Alice Walker, quilts are extremely important and appear in several of her works, including ‘‘The Color Purple’’. Her deep proudness of her cultural inheritances is especially shown in her embodiment of the mother’s position in ‘‘Everyday Use’’.
The quilts are the focal point in the discussion between Dee and her mother through which they become symbolic of the story’s theme. As they have been worked on by two generations, they contain:
‘‘(…) scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War.’’22
When Dee then wants to claim the quilts, her attitude conflicts with her mother’s perception of the family heirlooms. The mother sees their practicality and usefulness23 ; every piece of fabric is a vivid memory of her ancestors. This also explains her reluctance to give the quilts to Dee as she had rejected them earlier because ‘‘(...) they were old- fashioned, out of style.’’24.
The mother finally recognizes that Dee never wanted the quilts for the love of the family, that she has not understood the concept of tradition.25 With her, the quilts would rot in disuse whereas ‘‘Maggie knows how to quilt.’’26 and has been raised to know that she can put them to everyday use and still continue her heritage by patching them with new scraps27.
In the short story ‘‘Everyday Use’’, Alice Walker depicts in her typical writing style the life and struggles of black women.
Influenced by the political activism at that time, these women are searching for individual identities. In my opinion, Walker wants to convey that culture and heritage are neither name changes nor different hair; they are not something to be adopted for the sake of a trend but to be taught from one generation to the next.
This concept of tradition is exemplified through the quilts, the common symbol for heritage, because
‘‘Black women can survive only by recovering the rich heritage of their ancestors.’’28
In the story, both the mother and Maggie know how to quilt and are aware that quilts, in order to be kept alive, must be put to ‘‘Everyday Use’’.
I assure to have only used the following sources:
1. Crawford, Vicky L., Rouse, Jaqueline A., Woods, Barbara, Women in the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993)
2. Kanneh, Kadiatu, African Identities (London and New York: Routledge, 1998)
3. Walker, Alice, Die Farbe Lila (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1984)
4. Walker, Alice, The Color Purple (London: The Women’s Press, 1983)
5. F. A. Brockhaus, Brockhaus Kompaktwissen von A bis Z, Bd. 1. A-Dral (Wiesbaden, 1983)
11. http://americanhistory.miningco.com/homework/americanhistory/library/weekly/ aa020998.htm
12. http://americanhistory.about.com/homework/americanhistory/library/weekly/blal ice2.htm
2 (ll. 61-ll. 62)
4 (ll. 76-ll. 78)
5 (ll. 33-ll. 34)
4 (ll. 35-ll. 36)
7 (ll. 35-ll. 36)
8 (ll. 238 -ll. 240)
9 (ll. 12-ll. 13)
10 (l. 250)
11 (ll. 160-ll. 161)
12 (ll. 87-ll. 88)
13 (ll. 70-ll. 75)
14 (l. 147)
15 (ll. 175-ll. 176)
16 (l. 178)
17 (ll. 185-ll. 186)
19 By Alice Walker in ‘‘Anything we love can be saved’’, 1997 from http://www.bcsd.org/BHS/english/mag97/papers/walker.htm
20 (l. 91)
22 (ll. 258-ll. 262)
23 (ll. 267-272)
24 (ll. 290-ll. 291)
25 (l. 300)
26 (l. 296)
27 (l. 295)
28 By Alice Walker in ‘‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’’, 1974 from Kadiatu Kanneh’s ‘‘African identities’’
The story begins with Mama waiting in the yard for her eldest daughter Dee to return. Mama’s yard is an extension of her living room: the dirt ground flows into the small shack without separation. We are told little about Mama's husband; he is simply out of the picture and all of Mama's accomplishments, including the raising of her children, seem to be done by her own hand. Walker does not state the geographic setting outright, but we can surmise that Mama’s small farm is located somewhere in rural Georgia.
Mama discusses her younger daughter Maggie. Maggie nervously anticipates her big sister Dee. Maggie is apprehensive about the emotional stress and anxiety that will come with Dee's arrival. Mama daydreams about being on the Johnny Carson Show and reuniting with Dee in front of a sea of white faces.
Mama breaks out of her reverie to explain the realities of her life. Unlike the slim and lighter-skinned fantasy of herself on the Johnny Carson Show, Mama has darker skin and is big boned, wearing overalls rather than feminine clothing. She points out that her fat keeps her warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Mama does the work of two men on her farm. She can kill a bull calf and have the meat hung up to chill by nightfall.
Maggie lurks in the shadows not wanting to be fully visible. Mama describes her as a lame dog. Mama recalls the fire that burned their first house down. Maggie still bears the scars of that fateful night. Mama also recalls that Dee just stood there and watched the house burn with a condescending smile on her face. To Dee, the old house defined them as poor black farmers, the descendants of sharecroppers. Mama remembers how Dee willed herself to be different from her rural neighbors with her book smarts and by having a style all her own. Dee wanted nice things and was intent on getting them. If she couldn't afford to buy fancy clothes, she would make them. She seldom heard the word "no".
Dee finally arrives wearing a colorful, chic African dress. Maggie tries to bolt for the house but Mama stops her. Dee has changed her name to the more “African” sounding "Wangero". Mama attempts to explain that her given name Dee holds deep family meaning but "Wangero" insists that, at one time, it must surely have been a slave name forced on them by white owners. Mama recalls that she and her church made great sacrifices to send Dee to school in Augusta, where she learned about her historical roots. Dee greets them with an emphatic "Wa-su-zo-Tean-o", a Ugandan greeting. She introduces her partner Hakim-a-barber, whom Mama calls "Asalamalakim" after his Muslim greeting. Mama is weary of Dee’s brief entrance back into her life.
Dee has come back to lay claim to some old blankets that she has a newfound “historic” appreciation for: she thinks they would make trendy décor for her apartment. To Dee, the quilts represent the historical significance of an oppressed people. The problem is that Mama has a much more practical use for the quilts; Mama intends to give them to Dee’s much less sophisticated, and less garish, younger sister Maggie. Unlike Dee, Maggie is destined to get married within the community and live out her life in a setting much like Mama’s.
Hakim-a-barber attempts to kiss Maggie but she recoils in horror. They sit down to eat but, while Dee treats the meal as an exotic buffet, Hakim-a-barber announces that he can't eat an unclean animal like pork. Both feign interest in visiting with Mama and Maggie as they rifle through Mama’s house looking for “quaint” collectables. Dee makes a dozen or so patronizing insults, veiled as casual “chit-chat”, directed at Mama and Maggie. She insists that Maggie will use the quilts she desires for everyday use. Maggie attempts to show her displeasure with her sister by dropping a plate in the shadows but she finally succumbs to Dee's forcefulness. In her meek voice, Maggie squeaks that Dee can have the quilts.
Mama, however, has had enough of this emotional bludgeoning, and tells Wangero to take two other quilts not intended for Maggie and leave. Dee tells Maggie to make something of herself and ironically tells Mama that she doesn't understand her own heritage. Then both Dee and Hakim-a-barber climb into their car and disappear in a cloud of dust as quickly as they arrived.
Alice Walker does an adept job at blurring the difference between the stereotypes of rural black American women with the realities that make up their lives. To the casual viewer, Mama’s old homestead looks dilapidated: a stereotype of the humble lives of poor black subsistence farmers of the Old South. Mama’s yard is nevertheless clean and she finds her abode comfortable and relaxing. Although Mama’s eldest daughter Dee and her “friend” Hakim-a-barber will look down on the way she lives, her reality is her own and she is proud of what she has accomplished. Telling the story in first person allows the reader to get inside Mama's perspective without judgment. As Mama explains her situation in a matter-of-fact tone, Walker is able to paint the picture of the setting in a neutral way.
The reader is introduced to the tension between Mama and her eldest daughter Dee early in the story. Mama fantasizes about the kind of reunion she might have with Dee on television. She thinks of Johnny Carson and a sea of white people waiting to be warmed by the reunion of a poor black woman and her long lost daughter who has “made it” in the world. There are the requisite tears and sighs from the audience. Mama stands sheepishly to one side while Dee takes control of the situation. Mama marvels at how Dee can manipulate the white audience, twisting her own history into a narrative they want to hear. Here we see Mama imagining her daughter’s fantasy, not her own. It is crucial that in this fantasy, Mama imagines herself as lighter - in skin tone, body weight and wit. She knows that she does not fit the ideal that Dee so desperately aspires to. Mama understands that Dee despises her circumstances, and Mama wishes she could be what her daughter wants. However, she understands that this cannot be, and she is who she is.
In real life, Mama is not "camera-ready"; she is large and big boned. She wears flannel nightgowns to bed and old thick overalls during most days. There is a quiet sincerity about Mama that earns her the reader’s respect early in her narrative. She is loving, forgiving, and frank. She has no illusions about either of her daughters. Her memories of Dee growing up help give us perspective on the self-absorbed patronizing young woman who will soon blow through her house. Mama refuses to draw attention to herself: she personifies an ethos born out of humbleness and practicality. Indeed, she never even tells us her name; her identity is comprised of a hard life of experience and her position as head of her matriarchal family.
Unlike Dee, Maggie will be the one to inherit that position from Mama. While Dee is intelligent and assertive, Maggie is “slow” and withdrawn; while Dee preens over her attractive appearance and lighter skin, Maggie darts away from her own reflection, so self-conscious of her plainness and scars. Mama describes Maggie as a wounded animal who must live her life forever subjugated to forces greater than her own will. Throughout the story, Maggie is described in less than flattering terms. Although loyal and affectionate, Mama does not reinforce her with any strong qualities. It is even more disconcerting that Mama believes Maggie incapable of acquiring any strong qualities. Mama’s half-compliments about Dee’s natural beauty, “lighter skin”, and clever wit is juxtaposed with her comments about good looks, money, and quickness passing Maggie by. Mama has long been content with her lot in life and projects this same sense of fatalism onto young Maggie. According to Mama, the best Maggie can hope for is to “marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face).” Much like Dee, Mama’s limitations help shape her strengths. But with her acceptance of circumstance comes complacency. Maggie is, however, still young and Mama fails to accept that her life has possibilities. While Mama has carved out a life for herself, she gives us the sense that Maggie will fail at becoming an individual; she will disappear into a life of farm work, caring for children, and becoming an extension of her husband.
Even as a young girl, Dee searched for what she perceived as “better”. She wanted nice things and stylish clothes. Dee was self-possessed, clever and critical. Her mind craved education. For Dee, education was a way to transcend her experiences and forecast a brighter future for herself in the dawn of the Civil Rights era. Education was not something Mama had access to; the school closed in second grade and no one ever asked why. She says, in 1927, “colored asked fewer questions than they do now.” (92) Her generation was more complacent with their lot in life, not for lack of pride or hope, but because of the oppressive mechanism of racism that made a life like Dee's impossible for Mama. Dee, however, did not take no for an answer. Her immaturity and selfishness were tools used to escape a life she did not want.
However, Dee is incredibly judgmental and naive about Mama and Maggie's lives. She insists that Mama and Maggie "choose" to live where they do. While they may accept their fate, Maggie and Mama did not choose the life they were born into. Though Dee has access to changing times, not everyone born in the poor, rural black South is able to craft a new life and identity out of sheer will - and the financial help from Mama and her church. In return for her family's generosity, Dee patronized them with stories of other people’s lives and more “civilized” ways. Dee used her education as a weapon to wield against her own family.
Dee has reinvented herself as Wangero, and wears a bright African dress that Mama dislikes at first. Dee says that she refuses to go by the name given to her by white oppressors. Mama attempts to educate “Wangero” on the family lineage of her name. Dee rebukes her immediate genealogy, claiming that all their names come from white slave owners at one point in history. This is indeed true, yet Dee's adoption of Wangero and her Ghanaian greeting read as a superficial attempt to bury a past she despises.
The irony of Dee rebuking her own heritage in exchange for imagined pre-slavery identity is what shapes the rest of the story. She photographs her family home as an archaeologist would for National Geographic. Dee makes sure she gets a picture of Mama, the old house, and Maggie cowering in the corner. Both Mama and Maggie are objectified and exploited in these photos, like actors in costume at some living tourist museum. Dee envisions herself a journalist with a keen insight into her own life, but this insight is sanitized rather than enlightened by education as well as her personal hypocrisy.
Dee's shift in attitude is more fully revealed during dinner. Hakim-a-barber refuses to eat collards and pork, calling them “unclean”. Dee gets into her food like a tourist who has just discovered her new favorite ethnic meal. Dee gets excited about the benches, butter churn and various other objects, which she considers important artifacts, around the house. Dee finds them quaint and worthy showpieces for her apartment. Dee suddenly becomes fixated on some quilts that were put together by Grandma Dee, Big Dee, and Mama - despite earlier rejecting them as disgustingly quaint signifiers of her rural youth. She wants them now because she thinks they represent the historical significance of an oppressed people. Her education has taught her the value of the quilts, but only as items of the past, stripped of their familial context.
Mama tells Dee that she can have a set of newer quilts but Dee objects. Mama insists that the quilts will go to Maggie who will use them after she gets married. Wangero becomes incensed that her much less sophisticated sister will put the quilts to “everyday use”. Finally we see that even Mama has a breaking point. Much like her daydream about the Johnny Carson Show, whatever hopes that Mama might have had of re-connecting with her daughter become the stuff of fantasy. Mama can no longer endure Dee's shaming. In Mama's first real act of dissent, Mama tells Dee to take one or two of the other blankets if she wishes and walks out of the house. Walker concludes her characterization of Dee with a final insult veiled as advice: she tells Mama that, “you just don’t…understand your heritage.” (96) This passive aggressive mockery is extended to Maggie as well when Dee tells her to “make something of herself.” Of course, Mama understands her heritage is more than symbols or artifacts, but of the context of family that created them. Tradition cannot be boiled down to a decorative object; it is still living and breathing, in Mama and Maggie.
The immediate conclusion the reader has about Dee might generally be negative. This conclusion, however, is largely born out of Dee's immaturity towards both her heritage and her own family. There is a subtext to Dee that Walker subtly weaves throughout the story. Dee would have had to overcome many obstacles to get to the point of her loud and garish arrival to Mama's house. Being intelligent was not enough for a black girl from rural Georgia to excel in an institutionalized white university. She would also have had to be tenacious and driven. Ironically it is the parts of Dee’s personality that we might find objectionable that has enabled her deeper understanding of herself, however misguided. Even Mama gives Dee the benefit of the doubt at first. Mama does not protest about Dee's name change, and insists she will call her daughter by whatever name she chooses for herself. While Mama has no time for pretense, she does offer a more balanced and complex insight into the struggle represented by the girls' behavior. Mama can see right and wrong in both children, and in both points of view. But she does put her foot down when Dee tries to take Maggie's quilts away. In Maggie's marriage, she will keep the traditions passed down from her aunts and grandmother alive. Giving Dee the quilts would kill what Dee believes is already dead. But Maggie can continue traditions into the future by putting these humble objects to everyday use.
In the end, Wangero severs her connection with her real heritage for an imagined stylized heritage; in her drive to create a "new day" for Black Americans, she has also dismissed the very people that have shaped it.