Tyranny and Identity in Everyday Use

Human rights activist Alice Walker is one of the most highly noted authors of the twentieth century. Her stories and poems are inspiring to many people. “Everyday Use” is, by far, one of the most motivational and controversial of her works. Many, since its publication in the early seventies, have criticized and praised this work for its accuracy on the difficulties of being an African-American woman. However, this work takes both sides of the spectrum into account. On one hand a mother is facing the obstacle of accepting her daughter’s solution to her own identity crisis, and on the other a daughter is rising above the oppression that held and still holds her race and gender down at the expense of losing the respect of her family. Through symbolism and characterization, Walker brings to light the importance of overcoming tyranny and identity crises.

Each character within “Everyday Use” is enduring an internal struggle, however Dee seems to be having the most trouble. Since a young age, she has been different from her mother and sister. It was noted that she was never satisfied with the house she lived in and she always tried to better herself in terms of education. Her ideals are typical of the 1960s and 70s. Many ridiculous laws and restrictions on African-Americans had finally been lifted; black power was in full swing. Young people were inspired to take action and break free from what had been holding their families back since they came into this country hundreds of years before. One important idea, pointed out by Susan Farrell, is that the story is told through the mother’s eyes. Everything we know about Dee is her mother’s opinion of her “ We must remember from the beginning that the story is told by Mama; the perceptions are filtered through her mind and her views of her two daughters are not to be accepted uncritically”. This leads the reader to question whether Dee is really as terrible as Mama makes her out to be. Perhaps, Mama simply doesn’t understand the new way of life and is opposed to change, maybe it scares her. This would certainly affect the portrayal of Dee. Dee is plainly a product of her time, a woman determined to rise above the depression of her people and become something better. This is conveyed through the clothes she wears, the language she has adopted, as well as the new name she has taken. She is attempting to free herself from the chains of society. However, Dee is not right in the ways that she treats her family. At times, she is completely selfish and quite harsh. She continually casts her mother and sister aside and makes them feel ignorant and useless. This is conveyed several times throughout the story: “She wrote me once that no matter where we “choose” to live, she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends.” and “She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about the understand.” Dee has not been very kind to her family in this respect, and it is easy to understand her mother’s judgment of her. For a moment, in the latter half of the story, the reader believes that Dee might just not be so bad. She takes interest in objects around the house (especially the quilts), one thinks she might possibly have embraced part of her history, however it has brought to light that she wants them for decoration. Understandingly, from Mama’s point of view, this is upsetting. Traditionally, this is not something that black folks would do. Quilts are meant for everyday use. Nonetheless, this is Dee’s way of coping with the turbulent world around her and her efforts to better herself while still holding on to her heritage, so as to remind her where she came from (Walker, Farrell).

Just as Dee, Maggie is partially incorrectly portrayed as well. It is true that her sister seems to walk all over her, but this is entirely because of Maggie’s passive personality. As a young child she was burned in a house fire, and she seems to be ashamed of her scars and withdrawn because of all that has happened. This is a simply explanation for why she gives the impression of being afraid of her sister and even runs away from her when she comes to visit “ Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house, in her shuffling way, but I stay her with my hand”. This quote brings about a great point that Mama appears to always be controlling Maggie. Perhaps, Mama is overly controlling and protective towards Maggie because of her scars and her (Mama’s) lack of control over Dee. Mama also seems as if she “ is projecting her own anger and frustration onto her younger daughter…” Not once does Maggie voice her own opinion of Dee: she makes small actions like a noise or dropping an object. Walker gives the impression of Maggie being more of a plot device or an object rather than an actual character. Maggie is like a tool that Mama uses to project her own trials and tribulations (Tuten 179, Walker).

Mama is probably somewhere in her forties and has lived in a much different time than Maggie and Dee. When she was young, she had very few liberties as an African-American woman. Though Dee and Maggie’s generation has a long way to go, Mama’s generation went through a lot more. Her parents and their parents were likely sharecroppers, and though they may not have been slaves, they had virtually no rights. The 1960s completely transformed the world for African-Americans. Mama has not yet begun to understand this, she is still thinking in the way she has been taught to think. She would not look a white man in the eye “Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them”. Just as with Dee, Mama is a product of her generation, which leads into why she treats her children the way she does. Dee’s behavior is shocking to her mother, just as with every parent/child relationship in every culture. She is the epitome of a typical “rebellious teenager”, or adolescent, except that she is actually beginning a revolution. Dee had to choose her family or a life “…making it, for Dee, and no doubt many others, had a price. The force required to stare the white world down was equaled by the intensity of a gaze, which burned her links to her past” and thus Mama must try to best to deal with this fact, which is very hard for her. Maggie, on the other hand, never disappoints Mama. She is simple and will lead a simple life; she is not threatening to Mama. Mama also has great sympathy for Maggie because of how she has been burned and is still affected by it in everyday life. She tries to protect her the best she can (Walker, Whitsitt 448).

Though the personalities of these three characters are important to the story, they are not the most important part. The symbolism throughout this story is extremely significant. The first essential piece of symbolism is the yard “A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room”. This yard is representative of Mama and Maggie’s simple life. Most people would think of a yard as either a decorative accent to their home or a place to play, but to them it is an extension of their house. They spend quite a bit of time here, just enjoying the breeze. The second piece of symbolism is the orchid “She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers”. Mama is dreaming in this sentence, but this gives the reader insight into what she is thinking. She is explaining how Dee would want her to look, but she is also fantasizing here that Dee would pin an orchid on her dress, which is a figurative example of how much Mama wants Dee to accept and respect her as a mother. While these are great examples of symbolism, the most crucial symbol in this entire story is the quilts in the end of the story. The quilts are meaningful to Dee, Mama and Maggie in different ways. To Dee, “The quilts… link her generation to prior generations, and thus they represent the larger African American past. The quilts contain scraps of dresses worn by the grandmother and even the great-grandmother, as well as a piece of the uniform worn by the great-grandfather who served in the union Army…” they are a work of art to her; memorabilia of her family’s past and she wishes to hang them on the walls as so. However, to Mama and Maggie (who as far as the reader knows have the same ideals), these quilts mean roughly the same as far as remembering the family’s past, but they would like to remember their family in a different way. They would use the quilts as they were intended to be used, on beds and to keep warm. They prefer to remember their family in comfort and practicality. To them, it would be gauche to hang a quilt on a wall. With this “… the reader, if not the daughter, sees clearly that it is the mother who truly understands and promotes the continuation of their ‘heritage’” (Bauer 150, Cowart 172, Walker).

“Everyday Use” has an abundant amount of great examples of characterization and symbolism. Each character was developed with their separate ideals and struggles and each holding onto their past the best they can “…women in Walker’s story are survivors who have attempted to make whole lives out of scraps”. However, it seems as though, in the end, Mama has rid her and Maggie of Dee altogether. Dee strove so hard to rid herself of oppression that she drove her own family away. It is important to realize that hardships are a part of any journey that must not be forgotten, or simply hung on a wall like artwork (Pierce-Baker 256).

Works Cited

Bauer, Margaret D. “Alice Walker: Another Southern Writer Criticizing Codes Not

Put to Use.” Studies in Short Fiction (1992): 143-51. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Cowart, David. Critical Essays on Alice Walker. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Farrell, Susan. “Fight vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use'” Studies in Short Fiction (1998): 179-86. No Records. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Pierce-Baker, Charlotte, and Houston A. Baker, Jr. “Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use'” The Southern Review (1985): 706-20. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Tuten, Nancy. “Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”” Explicator 51.2 (1993): 125-28. Galileo. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.

Whitsitt, Sam. “In Spite of It All: Reading Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”” African American Review (n.d.): 443-59. Galileo. Web. 27 Apr. 2014.

False Virtue

Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” is set in Southern United States during the 1960’s to 1970’s, a time recognized for its importance in the Black Power Movement. After returning from college, Dee showcases a newfound love towards her Afro-centric roots, one she did not display while growing up in her mother’s home. Walker utilizes the multiple settings that the Johnson family each comes from to characterize the personality of Dee and her misunderstanding of the Black Power Movement. The sudden change in reactions and impressions that Dee expresses towards her old home before leaving for college and current home after returning highlight the lack of sincerity behind Dee’s sudden affinity towards African culture.

Before Dee left for college, the mother recounts how Dee “had hated the house that much” (1227). The mother worries that the similarities between the new house and its predecessor will anger Dee. The lack of actual windows, the pasture setting, and the tin roof of the house were not the material items that the mother remembers Dee used to obsess over. Rather, Mrs. Johnson feels Dee would want to “tear it down”, presumably due to the lack of sophistication the house emanates (1228). This gives a sense that Dee values items and materials showing class and similar superficial qualities over anything else. A house such as the one she lives in exudes a lack of sophistication and style in the world that Mrs. Johnson describes. Dee takes pride from the validation of other people’s perceptions of her. However, when Dee arrives, her reaction to the house completely startles her mother. She begins taking several pictures of Maggie, Mrs. Johnson, the cow, and most importantly the house. Mrs. Johnson recounts, “She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included” (1229). This behavior is peculiar, as the mother previously states that the new house is similar to the one that Dee had hated so much.

Walker is able to reveal how quickly Dee’s opinion has changed of the house, most likely due to her exposure to the Black Power Movement during her time at college. Many young African-Americans such as Dee started took pride in their Afro-centric roots at the time of the movement; however, this also shows Dee’s lack of sincerity due to her tendency to seek validation from her peers. This explains why Dee takes so many pictures of the house, the cow, and her family. It is not because of a genuine sense of pride for her African descent, but rather that Dee wants to impress her friends by revealing how African she is. Walker uses the Johnson’s house to paint Dee as a character more obsessed with the social connotations of being African at the time of the Black Power Movement, instead of genuinely being proud to be an African-American. Walker exhibits Dee’s hypocrisy in her treatment of the house and her mother’s household objects. For example, when asking for the butter churn top from her mother, Dee says, “I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,” (1231). Rather than respect the use of the object and utilize it for its intended purpose, Dee sees more value in keeping the churn top as a showpiece that she would be able to show her friends. This treatment is also shown towards the house when Dee brings Hakim-a-barber to the house for the first time. The mother remembers that Dee specifically had told her “no matter where we ‘choose’ to live…she will never bring her friends” (1228). Presumably, Dee felt embarrassed to live in a house that she could not show off to her friends at the time, and therefore refrained from even bringing them to the house. However, after being exposed to the Black Power Movement while attending college, Dee is now elated to show Hakim-a-barber home, because of how African it is.

Rather than see the greater purpose of the cause she is trying to be a part of, Dee remains caught in materialistic and surface level aspects of the Black Power Movement that she is so enamored with. Dee’s treatment of the house and household objects shows a lack of understanding of why she is proud to be of African descent. The purpose of the Black Power Movement was to use pride of the heritage African-Americans came from as a way to fight against the persecution many faced during this time period. Walker uses the backdrop of the 1960’s and 1970’s Black Power Movement to expose Dee’s maltreatment of her family under the pretext of caring for their culture. For example, Dee becomes increasingly malicious towards her mother when her mother refuses to give Dee the quilts. Dee remarks that Maggie would not use the quilts properly and says, “You just will not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!” (1232). Dee sees herself more worthy of the quilts than Maggie, as Dee feels she understands the culture better than Maggie or Mrs. Johnson ever would. The oppressive behavior Dee combats by changing her name is synonymous to her maltreatment of her family.

Throughout “Everyday Use,” Dee represses her family for her own gain, mainly to prove the culture they share is more prevalent in her life rather than in theirs. This ideology contradicts the purpose of the Black Power Movement, highlighting a lack of maturity and understanding in Dee. Walker’s illustrative use of setting accentuates the differences Dee has with her family within the realm of their shared culture. Differences in the age and the influences that a character grows up with have a settling impact in molding their personality, as shown in Dee. Walker thus uses Dee and her societal influences to show the lack of comprehension a person has on any subject that is viewed from a limited perspective.

Analysis of Character in “Everyday Use” and The Heiress

In Alice Walker’s famous short story “Everyday Use,” Dee is perceived as an unsympathetic character. It is difficult for the reader to feel compassion for Dee since she possesses repelling characteristics; she is as authoritative, manipulative, and self-absorbed. Although “Everyday Use” provides brief glimpses into the past, it is nearly impossible for the reader to have a full understanding of the truth in Dee’s upbringing prior to the story. Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s play The Heiress presents the journey of Catherine, a character who, in the final scene, shares similar characteristics with Dee; however, the audience witnesses Catherine’s troublesome upbringing and the traumatic events that unfold before the final scene. In The Heiress, the audience sees a change in Catherine, giving reason as to why she grew into a cold-hearted character. “Everyday Use” is equivalent to the last scene of The Heiress, with the significant difference that the reader does not have the opportunity to experience Dee’s journey. This comparison raises a question: Would the reader be more sympathetic towards Dee if the reader truly knew her past?

It is evident that Dee is the antagonist of Walker’s “Everyday Use.” Although the term “antagonist” doesn’t necessarily describe the villain of a story, Dee is clearly a villain. In the opening paragraph, the character and narrator, Mama, is frightened of her daughter Dee, as she and her youngest daughter, Maggie, wait upon Dee’s arrival. According to Susan Ferrell in her article “Fight Vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation Of Dee In Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use,’” “Dee inspires in Mama a type of awe and fear more suitable to the advent of a goddess than the love one might expect a mother to feel for a returning daughter” (Ferrell). After arriving home from college, Dee dresses in attire that is strictly her own style–completely different from the clothes of her sister and mother. Dee says that orchids from home are “tacky flowers,” and Mama simply imagines a moment when Dee would pin an orchid on her shirt (Walker 78). Since moving out of the house, Dee has even changed her name to Wangero, saying “’I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me’” (Walker 81). And during her visit home Dee has brought with her a boyfriend who says that farming and raising cattle aren’t “his style” (Walker 82).

While Dee has changed her appearance and lifestyle to escape her heritage, she also practices manipulative and authoritative tactics to get what she wants. “She would always look anyone in the eyes. Hesitation was no part in her nature,” Mama would say, and Maggie believes that Dee “has held life always in the palm of one hand, that ‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her” (Walker 78). With an overdramatic level of appreciation for home, Dee tries to manipulate her mother into giving her a family heirloom to take back with her to the city. She arrives with a Polaroid camera and “never takes a shot without making sure the house is included” (Walker 81). As she sits at the dinner table she exclaims how wonderful the food is and how she never knew how “lovely” the benches were and that she could “feel the rump prints” in them. All of this before saying, “’I knew there was something I wanted to ask you if I could have’” (Walker 82).

In Catherine’s final scene of The Heiress, she shares similar characteristics with Dee. Morris has arrived at Catherine’s home–to the inherited house of her deceased father. Catherine practices great manipulation by agreeing to pursue marriage once again with Morris, and, after his attempt to embrace her, she says, “Not now, Morris, later. If we start to kiss we shall never make it to the parsonage” (Goetz 87-88). While Morris gathers a few belongings from his house before the elopement, Catherine practices an authority similar to Dee’s by closing the drapes on all the windows and ordering her maid to bolt the front door. As she ascends the stairs, Morris bangs on the door, calling for Catherine, but she doesn’t look back.

Based on the final scene of The Heiress alone, it would be difficult for the audience to sympathize with Catherine. Instead, the audience cheers for Catherine because the audience has experienced her journey. At the beginning of Act II, Catherine agrees to marry Morris, the first man to court Catherine, a woman who is not described as being beautiful. On the night of their elopement, Catherine eagerly awaits Morris in the downstairs of her father’s house with her bags packed; however, Morris never returns to the house to get her, and she never sees him again until the final scene two years later. Catherine’s view of love was previously distorted by her relationship with her father. Catherine’s mother died in giving birth to her. Her father continuously talked about how Catherine’s mother had so much “grace” and “gaiety” and how she was “a pleasure to look at and be with.” Instead of loving Catherine as his daughter, her father says, “I have concentrated my whole life on seeing her approach the perfection of her mother” (Goetz 19). After experiencing this journey of heartbreak with Catherine, the audience can readily see the reasons for her malicious actions in the final scene.

With the consideration of context clues, it is possible to draw reasonable conclusions from Dee’s unwritten past that would provide more sympathy for her character. It is important to remember that “Everyday Use” is told through the eyes of Mama: “the perceptions are filtered through her mind and her views of her two daughters are not to be accepted uncritically” (Farrell). The way that Mama describes Dee may not be entirely true, since the narrator is also a biased character in the story: “Mama’s expectations of Dee tell us more about Mama herself than they do about Dee” (Farrell). It is clear that Dee had always been different than her family. She was intelligent, outgoing, and “at sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was” (Walker 79). It’s reasonable to imagine that Dee felt suffocated by her family and that she was punished for being different. In a family with such strong roots, Dee was probably never encouraged to dream big or to pursue anything outside of her small town. These are plausible reasons that would cause Dee inhabit the villainous characteristics the reader sees in “Everyday Use.”

At the end of the short story, Dee tells her little sister, “’You ought to try to make something of yourself too, Maggie. It’s a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it’” (Walker 84). What if the story could have been told in Dee’s perspective over the course of several years, with “Everyday Use” as the final scene? Would the reader think of her differently? While the reader may fail to sympathize with the Dee presented in the short story, the reader may be able to sympathize with her past.

Works Cited

Farrell, Susan. “Fight Vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation Of Dee In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”.” Studies In Short Fiction 35.2 (1998): 179. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.

Goetz, Ruth, and Augustus. The Heiress. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1946. Print.

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Backpack Literature. 5th ed.: Pearson. 77-85. Print.

A Comparison of Dee and Mathilde

Mathilde Loisel of “The Necklace” and Dee of “Everyday Use” can easily be compared and contrasted, for they treat others very similarly, and the situations that they either put themselves in or, unfortunately, fall into are ironic. Although the stories take place in completely different settings, the similarities between the two are striking. The authors of “The Necklace” and “Everyday Use” use irony and characterization to illustrate the personalities and motivations of Mathilde and Dee.

The most significant aspect to observe about Mathilde is her huge attention to image. Throughout the entire story, her behaviors circle around her motive or desire to create a positive self-image for society. This can be seen most profoundly when she is preparing for the ball; she wants to make sure that she is properly dressed so that she can be seen as wealthy. The manner that Mathilde speaks to her husband gives the reader an impression that she is spoiled and very ungrateful. When told that they have received an invitation, Mathilde responds, with an exclamation of disgust, “What do you wish me to do with that?” (Maupassant 2). She continues to act ungrateful, complaining she has nothing to wear as well as complaining that she had no fine jewels or stones to wear. Her husband is enabling her behavior when he gives her the money for a new dress and when he takes out the huge amount of loans that he did to pay off the replacement necklace. Of course, it is safe to infer that her husband possibly cared about image as much as she did because he goes to such lengths to help her. In the beginning of the story, she was obsessed with appearing rich, and she felt as if she deserved to be wealthy. After she and her husband replaced the necklace with a brand new one, going into debt in the process, Maupassant describes her imminent descent into poverty. She had lived like she never had before and finally, once the debt was fully paid off, she told Madame Forestier what she had done and that she felt happy to have paid off the necklace. As the reader comes to find out, the original necklace was a fake. Guy de Maupassant used a bit of irony near the end of the story to further develop Mathilde’s character. Mathilde is quite privileged in the beginning and, while she wasn’t wealthy, she had luxuries and the money to live comfortably. She yearns to be wealthy and complains of how poor she is. In the end, she is poor and worse off than she had been in the beginning.

Dee, from “Everyday Use,” is strongly concerned with separating herself from her family, or so it seems. Mama explains how she was as a child and as a teenager, and her motivation doesn’t change much; she continues to drift further away from her family. This motivation is intentional and is proven so when the author writes, “[Dee]She wrote to me once that no matter where we ‘choose’ to live, she will manage to come see us. But she will never bring her friends” (Walker 493). The author’s choice of the word, manage, instead of promise or another equivalent word gives the reader a feel that Dee feels obligated and only said this because she felt so. According to the narrator, Dee has always been confident, and she wanted an education, rather than working the same way her mother did. The narrator explains that Dee read to her family often, but she read in a condescending manner. When Dee explains that she wanted to go by Wangero, she says, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me…There I was not before ‘Dicie’ cropped up in our family, so why should I try to trace it that far back?” (Walker 494). She, however, contradicts herself when she begins to act interested in the family heirlooms around the house. This becomes a problem when Dee wants to keep some quilts that Mama had saved for Maggie, Dee’s younger sister. Dee goes on a rampage, explaining how Maggie would ruin the rugs and then closes the conversation by stating that Maggie needed to be prouder of her heritage. Alice Walker, the author, utilized irony as well when she includes this in the story because Dee adamantly distances herself from her family, but she wants to keep family heirlooms and tells her sister to be prouder of her heritage.

Although Mathilde and Dee are from vastly different backgrounds and time periods, comparing the both of them is easily accomplished because of the similarities in their personalities, backgrounds, and behaviors. It is important to note that Dee is from a poor, black family from the southern United States during the mid-1900’s, and Mathilde is from a middle class family in France during the 1800’s. Despite the difference in backgrounds, both women are described as beautiful and both women have it in their head that they deserve more than they have. Mathilde, however, is focused on her personal image; she is very concerned about what other’s think about her. Dee is very actively trying to distance herself from her past and her family. Both women’s behaviors revolve around their motives, and although different, their motives ultimately lead to their desire: to get what they want and get what they think they deserve: for Dee, this is a life better than her family offers, and for Mathilde, her desire is to become wealthy and attractive to people of the upper class. As for the type of character that each woman is, readers may infer that both Dee and Mathilde are static characters. Neither of them change through the course of the story; it may seem as if Mathilde has changed but her personality remains the same. Even after losing the necklace, her primary focus is to preserve her image and pay off the necklace rather than confess her mishap to her friend. It is also worth noting that both authors used a bit of irony to tell the story of both women. Whether this irony signifies the hypocrisy of the women’s character or emphasizes the character of the women, it is another element that stands out vividly to a reader.

Dee and Mathilde, two women from very different backgrounds, can easily be compared and contrasted because of the strong similarities between their personalities and desires. Mathilde’s desire to be wealthy and appealing to the upper class contributes to her focus on self-image. Dee, with her strong desire for a better life than her family offers, has a to strong focus on distancing herself from her family and their ways. Both Mathilde and Dee share the sense that they deserve better than they have because they are beautiful. Both authors brilliantly worked in irony and characterization to create the round characters of Dee and Mathilde.

Works Cited

Maupassant, Guy de. “The Necklace.” Trans. Mathilde Weissenhorn. Balance Publishing Company. 1989. Web. 31 May 2011.

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 12th ed. New York: Pearson, 2013. 490-497. Print.

“Everyday Use” from an Antipatriarchal Perspective

“Everyday Use” from an Antipatriarchal PerspectiveAccording to feminist theory, cultural definitions of gender roles can be patriarchal or antipatriarchal (Tyson, 83-86). In the short story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker depicts her characters’ gender roles as antipatriarchal in the feminist theory context. Specifically, this idea is present in Mama’s physical appearance, the activities she partakes in, and her refusal to submit to authoritative figures. In addition, Walker positively depicts antipatriarchal ideology through the character of Mama, especially when she violates traditional patriarchal gender roles. Feminist theory examines the ways in which identity is molded by the cultural definitions of gender roles. According to feminist theory, there are two types of ideologies, patriarchal and antipatriarchal. In patriarchal societies, men hold all or most positions of power, while women are oppressed and have little opportunity. Patriarchal gender roles are very traditional, meaning that men are masculine, strong, powerful providers, though sometimes violent; and women tend to be feminine, submissive, nurturing, and motherly. Patriarchal thought praises individuals who embody these characteristics and condemns those who challenge them, while antipatriarchal philosophy does just the opposite (Tyson 83-85).In “Everyday Use,” Mama takes on the roles of the man of the house and is praised for doing so, reflecting antipatriarchal ideas in the text (Tyson 99). She has no male provider, but Mama works hard to care for her family. She takes on the role of the head of the house and tends to stereotypically masculine duties, embodying the traditional gender roles of a man.The opening line of the story is, “I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon,” (Walker 274) and immediately paints a picture of Mama’s ability to do manual labor. Walker goes on to illustrate the importance of keeping a good, clean yard, as it is “like an extended living room” (Walker 274), thereby praising Mama for her efforts. The strong, violent nature of traditional male gender roles is evident in Mama. In the text she describes some of the activities she partakes in:“I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man…I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire in minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall” (275).Mama’s actions and her success in performing traditionally male duties to provide for her family require her to be powerful, both physically and emotionally, and force her to embrace a violent nature, rather than a motherly, nurturing one. Mama’s physical appearance is also very masculine. She refers to herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (275) who chews tobacco and wears overalls to work in during the day and pajamas made of flannel at night, which are clothes generally worn by working men. in the story, Walker suggests that Mama does not think of herself as beautiful. She believes her daughter would like her to be “a hundred pounds lighter… [with] skin like an uncooked barley pancake” (275). Rather than be oppressed by these patriarchal ideas of society, Mama rises above them, and is confident of what she is able to accomplish on her own. In “Everyday Use”, Dee also embodies masculine roles by taking the place of Mama’s absent husband. Dee attends school and is well educated, a freedom rarely attained by women during that time. She refuses to be “oppressed” by a name that was given to her family by slave owners, which cause her to reject her heritage and feel a sense of superiority over her family. Dee believes she is entitled to the family quilts because she is educated. However, Mama believes otherwise.Mama claims to have already promised Dee’s desired quilts to Maggie. Dee argues that Maggie cannot appreciate them and therefore she fights for the “priceless” artifacts. Atypical of patriarchal society, Mama refuses to submit to Dee, who is a masculine figure. In stories with a more patriarchal point of view, women are often forced to give in to authoritative tormenters, but Mama takes stands up for herself.By applying feminist theory to Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” it is possible to examine the cultural definitions of gender roles as formed by patriarchal or antipatriarchal ideas. In the short story, Mama participates in activities typically performed by men, has a traditionally masculine physical appearance, and refuses to submit to authoritative figures. According to traditional patriarchal ideology, mothers should should be feminine, nurturing, motherly, and submissive, yet Walker depicts Mamas just the opposite. Mama defies everything a traditional woman should be, according to patriarchal beliefs, but Walker celebrates her. Therefore, “Everyday Use” exemplifies antipatriarchal ideology.  Works CitedTyson, Lois. “Using Concepts from Feminist Theory to Understand Literature.” Learning for a Diverse World: Using Critical Theory to Read and Write about Literature. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001. 83-85. Print.Walker, Alice. “Everday Use.” Learning For a Diverse World: Using Critical Theory to Read and Write about Literature. Ed. Lois Tyson. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001. 274-81. Print.

Pride and Heritage in “Everyday Use”

On the surface, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker is on one level about a mother’s dynamic relationship with her two daughters, who have conflicting attitudes towards both family and cultural roots. It is also a depiction of the misguided and superficial pride resulting from the civil rights movement. In her story, Walker compares those African Americans who accepted life and lived their culture by carrying on family traditions with those who struggled for identity, trying to “museumize” the past and put their culture on display. Walker’s characters Dee and Maggie represent these conflicting perspectives in the African American identity struggle. Her choice of detailed events, southern setting, characters, and symbols in the Johnson family home work together to reveal the story’s deeper meaning and lead us to infer that Walker believes African American heritage should be integrated into everyday life rather than preserved and displayed superficially. In Walker’s story, Dee, the eldest daughter, returns home to her dirt-poor beginnings to visit her mother and sister after being away at school. Dee and her husband arrive at the run-down house with a somewhat dramatic entrance as her family recognizes her new appearance and style. They have an awkward greeting, as tension is felt right away when Mama and Maggie realize that Dee has changed her generational name to Wangero, an African one. Mama and Maggie cannot pronounce the African names, but they humor the visitors anyway in a very sarcastic tone. When everyone goes inside to eat, we see that Dee’s suddenly loves everything that she was embarrassed about before. Clearly, black nationalism changed Dee’s perception about her origins. Dee goes on to desire various family heirlooms such as the butter churn and two meaningful family quilts. Thanks to black pride and the civil rights movement, Dee now sees her home culture as stylish and wants to use the heirlooms for decoration. Mama has always catered to Dee and given her everything she wanted, but in this case Mama had promised the quilts to Maggie. While Maggie consents to giving them to Dee, Mama finally stands up to Dee by grabbing the quilts and giving them to Maggie. Describing events with this level of detail is important because it allows the reader to see the nuances of cultural difference and family discord. Setting must be taken into account in order to fully understand the assumptions that play a role in each of the character’s attitudes. “Everyday Use” takes place in the early 1970s, when African Americans were struggling to find an identity after racial segregation and discrimination were outlawed in the United States. Black power and African pride movements emerged at this time, as many wanted to rediscover their African roots and change their way of living. Some, like Dee, took it too far. Overly motivated by the civil rights movement, Dee began to reject the American part of her heritage altogether. Mama asks her oldest daughter, “What happened to Dee?” and Wangero responds, “She’s dead, I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (67). “Everyday Use” takes place in the Johnson family three-bedroom shack that has a tin roof (and) “just some holes cut in the sides” for windows (66). The practicality of the living situation shows once again the differences between the characters. Mama and Maggie value the simplicity and worth of everyday items and a functional place to live. Even after the civil rights movement they still value both the African and American parts of their culture. Dee/Wangero can only accept the family home ironically, seeing it as a sort of quaint historical piece instead of a real, living home. Walker’s characterization of Mama, Maggie and Dee further clarifies the theme of “Everyday Use.” Their attitudes toward pride and heritage are revealed through their reactions to each other and everyday objects in the house. The main character and narrator, Ms. Johnson (Mama) describes herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (65). She is an extremely strong, independent and proud woman. Although she only has a second grade education, Ms. Johnson understands the changing times and states: “In 1972 colored [people] asked fewer questions than they do now” (66). She is level-headed and content with her surroundings and way of life. While she has worked hard to provide for her daughters, Mama has always felt that she cannot live up to her oldest daughter’s – Dee’s – expectations. Ultimately she does find the wherewithal to stand up to Dee in the name of what she, Mama, knows is right. Dee is described as having a style of her own. She is much more extravagant than her mother, who says Dee always wanted nice things growing up, and she has always been on a path toward higher education. Dee frequently read to Mama and Maggie during school days: “Without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant…she washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know” (66). Dee always believed she was destined for greater things than her family and that she was superior to them. Mama recounts that Dee “wrote me once that no matter where we choose to live, she will manage to come see us” (66), a condescending promise from someone who was becoming well-educated and sophisticated at school. Dee is also very self-centered, however, and becomes (or always has been) ignorant of her family’s values and her own materialistic nature. Dee’s change in name, appearance, and values reflect her new attitude toward her culture. Maggie, unlike Dee, is portrayed as thin, weak, shy, and not as intelligent as her sister, even though she ironically proves to be more knowledgeable about her culture and ancestral roots. Maggie is self-conscious because she was physically scarred by the fire that burned down the Johnson’s first home. Mama notes that “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe” (65). Though simple and quiet, Maggie’s sense of pride is both genuine and practical. The family quilts remind her of her ancestors and she respects their struggles. Her everyday use of the quilts shows how she would continue to integrate her heritage into her life rather than use them to show off African style. Maggie’s character is a foil to Dee’s, emphasizing the difference between their senses of pride and culture. The central symbol of this story is the family quilts. They represent ancestral history and the generational ties of the Johnson family, connecting the present and past. The quilts are also used to distinguish genuine, practical pride from superficial interest. Another symbol is Mama’s action of taking the quilts back from Dee and giving them to Maggie, which reveals Mama’s strength and pride in being an African American woman. Another is Maggie’s scars, symbolic of all the pain that African Americans endured during slavery. Dee is a symbol of misguided pride, pride in pieces of culture only for artistic worth and not family value. By letting Maggie have the quilts instead of Dee, Walker (through Mama) makes it clear that she believes African American heritage should be a living part of society. Walker uses the standard literary elements of plot, setting, characterization, and symbolism in “Everyday Use” to make a point about the concept of pride in African American culture. She believes that one can and should aspire to pursue a better life, but that one does not need to separate oneself from the past and heritage in order to do so. Walker sides with Mama and Maggie, asserting that African Americans should exhibit pride by fully recognizing both the American and African parts of their heritage while pursuing a better life.Works CitedWalker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Eds. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 5th ed. Pearson Longman, 2007. 64-70.

The Black Empowerment Movement within Bambara’s “The Lesson” and Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” explore the Black Empowerment Movement of the 1970’s. Although slavery had been outlawed for over a hundred years, lack of education and economy proved to be the modern day shackles for African Americans. As college educated African American women, Bambara’s Miss Moore and Walker’s Dee are pioneers of their time. These women are confident and defiant characters who utilize their educations in an effort to reclaim cultural identity and restore social and economic justice. “The Lesson” shows Miss Moore’s progressive approach towards Afro-centrism as an attempt to outreach and advance her race. This contrasts Dee’s narrow-sighted view from “Everyday Use”, who uses this pride to distance herself from her modest beginnings. Miss Moore and Dee’s ideological beliefs are seen in their physical appearances. As a way to express discontent with the typical white Anglo-Saxon culture and fashions, African Americans begin to reclaim their African cultures to create an identity of their own. Dee and Miss Moore’s life in the 1970s places them in the Afro-Centrism Movement. Afro-Centrism is the belief that African American lineage can be traced back to ancient Egypt, which was dominated by a race of black Africans. This concept was developed as a psychological weapon against racism and oppression. As Sylvia describes Miss Moore in “The Lesson”, we picture her “nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup” (61). Miss Moore’s sense of style seems to be minimalistic, which is similar to that of her ancestors. In “Everyday Use”, Miss Johnson describes Dee’s new look upon returning from college: “…a dress so loud it hurt my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun” (791). Dee’s new-found fashion sense seems to resemble native African garb, with a dress of free flowing fit and eccentric colors. Dee also fashions earrings down to her shoulders and several bracelets that are unusual for her time. Dee’s hair is described by her mother as resembling “…the wool on a sheep” (791). Both Dee and Miss Moore style their hair and dress in similar fashion, which provides as a way for them to distance themselves from the culture of the historically oppressive white race.Miss Moore and Dee attend college, a rare accomplishment for women of their time, especially for minority women. In “Everyday Use”, Dee is awarded the opportunity for a higher education through the perseverance of her mother and the donations of the church and community. With the help of her family and community, Dee is able to escape the restrictive environment in the rural south. While little is known about Miss Moore’s upbringing in “The Lesson”; one can assume she is raised in another type of restrictive environment, an urban setting stricken with poverty. Miss Moore ultimately returns to this place to help its youth. Sylvia, one of Miss Moore’s pupils, says: “She’d been to college and said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education, and she not even related by marriage or blood”(61). Bambara uses Miss Moore to demonstrate how selfless leaders in the empowerment movement used their educations to provoke change. Although unappreciated, in “Everyday Use”, Dee spends time educating her mother and sister: “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two…” (790). Dee knows her mother and sister lack education and shares her gift of intelligence with them. In fact, Dee’s friendships evolve from those who she reads to. Her friends “…worshiped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye” (791). Dee’s eloquence projects beyond her family as she reads to anyone who will listen. Dee’s outspoken personality and Miss Moore’s eagerness to instruct the youth are important for spreading new values of black pride and empowerment. Miss Moore and Dee are prolific entities for the advancement of their race; however, they exude dissimilar messages. In “The Lesson”, Miss Moore’s message revolves around money and its unequal distribution in American. She takes her group of students to a high-end toy store to show the children that some people spend an absurd amount of money on superficial gifts. This money is needed by the children’s families for the essential items in life. Sylvia explains: “She always waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” (65). Her message is directed at these underprivileged youth in hopes that someday they will become successful people and be able to enjoy the “finer” things in life. While slavery had been abolished for many decades, there are still institutional factors oppressing the African American race. Miss Moore’s efforts are to free her people of these economic sanctions. In contrast, Dee’s message in “Everyday Use” is not as clear because she is younger than Miss Moore, and has not yet established her identity. Dee pushes for a cultural change in her people and consequently enters a conflict of generations. In “Everyday Use”, Dee changes her name to Wangero, stating: “I couldn’t bear it any longer being named after people who oppress me” (792). The name Dee is traced back to her enslaved ancestors and she wants to get rid of this association. Dee then returns home with a newly acquired respect for her origins. However, her demeanor showcases her family’s life as an artifact rather than an acceptable lifestyle. This distances her from them. Dee turns to her sister Maggie and says: “You ought to try and make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (795). Dee pushes her sister to follow in her non-conforming lifestyle, but inadvertently offends her family’s simple and content way of life. While Dee is of earnest intentions for the improvement of her race, her demeanor can be viewed as ignorant and offensive to the older generations of African Americans. Dee wants the quilts and the butter churn as artifacts of the old generation of her race. In doing so, she’s turning her back on her mother and sister who still live in the times she has forgotten. Dee gasps, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! […] She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (794). Dee wants the quilts and other antiques to showcase her family’s way of life as the past and ignores the fact they are still living in the present. Dee’s clash with older African American generations can be seen as a hindrance to the black empowerment movement. In “The Lesson”, Miss Moore has a more structured approach to black empowerment and seems to have a deeper understanding of the issues. She realizes her race has plenty of obstacles to overcome without adding generational tensions caused by Dee’s tactics. Miss Moore says to the children, “Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. What do you think?” (66). Miss Moore asks this question to see if the children comprehend the lesson shown by visiting the toy store, a lesson of economic inequality. She knows that having economic freedom opens many doors presently closed to her people, doors that lead to: strong educations, freedom to live outside the “Projects”, and freedom to pursue a better life. Miss Moore and Dee serve as important figures in their communities. Their messages are diverse; however, both call for a new beginning. While Miss Moore sees lack of financial freedom as a major factor in the demise of her race, Dee calls out to African Americans to be proud of who they are and where they come from. Both ideas form the basis for a movement towards black empowerment, which gives birth to the end of racism, social injustice, and cultural oppression.

Identity Confusion in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” is a tightly woven tale that brings together many disparate elements of the story to reinforce the thesis put forward by W.E.B. DuBois that black Americans are trapped in a double consciousness between their African heritage and their American citizenship. Walker’s story is about the bifurcation between a mother and a daughter, between America and Africa, and between the two cultures battling for one identity. Beyond the obvious identity confusion expressed in the character of Dee/Wangero, Walker imbues her story with symbolism that points to the general confusion of identity inherent in the African experience.

DuBois equates the experience of black America with striving to create a singular consciousness out of an identity made up of dual perspectives. DuBois writes that “One ever feels his twoness…two warring ideals in one dark body” (564). Walker’s story is about this war over identity and she extends it even to the symbolism of the items that Dee wants. Dee urgently desires the butter churn and asks, “Didn’t Uncle Buddy whittle it out of a tree you all used to have?” The very fact that the churn was made from a tree, that its identity was forged into something new based upon its labor value from something that was naturally formed, is indicative of the striving for a soul about which DuBois writes. But even beyond that, there is something more to the importance of the churn. The wood that was in and of itself something important and of value was fashioned into a butter churn, an instrument that takes one thing, milk, and transforms it into something else, butter. DuBois speaks of merging without losing any essence, (565) and the butter churn is as good a symbol for that striving as any other item that might have been found in the house. For what is butter? Is it milk or is it something entirely new? What is an African-American? Is he African or American or both? Can he be both? If butter isn’t still milk, then what is it? Walker takes this symbol of merging identities that springs from a mechanism which is itself a forged tool, and refuses to overplay it. Instead, she extends the metaphor even further by having Dee decide to take the churn top and imbue with yet another identity. Dee perhaps sees making the churn top into a centerpiece as an emancipation of sorts; the churn no longer has to do work, it can become merely ornamental. The churn turns one thing into another, just as slavery turned Africans into Americans. But Walker doesn’t stop there. Her use of symbolism extends to the primary object in the story.

What Dee has really come for are the quilts made by her grandmother, quilts that her mother has promised to Maggie. These quilts, though more heavily emphasized than the churn, are equally subtle symbols of striving for identity. A quilt is by its very nature something with a double consciousness. The quilt Dee wants specifically were made out of parts of old dresses that her grandmother used to wear. The quilt, like the butter churn, is a utilitarian device. However, the quilt differs from the churn in that it is made out of pre-existing utilitarian devices — the dresses — rather than something solid and independent in its identity prior to being made. Beyond that, of course, is the fact that Dee doesn’t desire the quilts for their intended purpose. Once again, Dee wants to take something that has a use and turn it into an ornamental device. Dee’s desire to take simple tools and transform them into something greater reflects DuBois’ fight against prejudice. DuBois writes that prejudice engenders self-abasement in the black individual. (567) The way to fight back against this self-abasement is by aspiring to culture. Dee considers herself as cultured, and beyond the abased quality of the lives lived by her mother and sister. Maggie would have the temerity to use the quilts to keep warm. Dee recognizes the true quality and value of the quilts. She will hang them on the wall. Taking something that has a use and a purpose and using it for something besides that purpose is the ultimate accomplishment in high culture. For Dee, the quilts and her ability to use them for decoration rather than for warmth represent her emancipation. That the quilts were once parts of a dress used in the first line of defense the cold-clothing-only serves to make them all the more valuable. The symbolism of warring identities is underlined throughout the story by Walker’s choice of items desired by Dee.

Even more obvious than the symbolism of the items Dee wants in reference to DuBois’ theory of double consciousness among black Americans is Dee herself. In many ways, Dee is less a fully realized character than she is an embodiment of the struggle for a unifying identity that DuBois so eloquently speaks about. Dee is a character at war not only with her mother and her culture, but with herself as well. This schizophrenia is addressed by DuBois, at least tangentially, when he writes about “the idea of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic.” At this stage of her life Dee has still not learned to achieve this without contempt. Dee clearly shows contempt for her mother, her sister and their entire way of life. And yet she just as clearly hasn’t really achieved any true emancipation; she hasn’t achieved a true consciousness of self. Dee accuses her family of not understanding their heritage. She, in fact, returns home in order to retrieve these cultural artifacts which she believes represents her heritage. But her designs and intents are anything but respectful of her heritage. In fact, she desires to put them on display in a way that is really not quite so different from the white capitalist cashing in on ethnic artworks. Dee may have changed her name to the more African-sounding Wangero Leewanikia Kemanjo, but in reality she has become even more Americanized than her family. Mother and Maggie use the objects of their heritage in obeisance to the heritage; that is, the quilts made out of old dresses were a necessity because they could not afford a new blanket or comforter. The heritage inherent in the dresses was passed onto the quilt; everything was utilitarian because it had to be. Either you made a quilt from your old dresses or you froze. That is heritage. Taking a quilt and putting it up on a wall is American waste as its most obvious. Dee may have become Wangero, but she just as well could have changed her name to JC Penney. Dee has successfully conformed to the greater ideals of the American Republic as its worse, but she has done so specifically in opposition to and contempt of her own race. Dee has not successfully found a single self-consciousness that combines her American and her African parts; she instead has merely traded her African for her American. DuBois writes of blacks living a life in which they see themselves “through the revelation of the other world” and this is precisely what Dee does throughout the story. Dee can achieve consciousness only by comparing herself to what she was and her family still is, or against what Hakim-a-barber claims to be. The fact that she is still waging the war to combine the two into one singular sense of consciousness is made apparent by the story itself. Dee’s return to retrieve the items of heritage deemed so important to her can be seen as an unconscious desire to retrieve her heritage and mend the split in her consciousness. While her initial intention may be to turn the churn top and the quilt into high cultural artifacts, she may also be attempting in a subconscious manner to come to terms the fact that she has yet to achieve the singularity of consciousness about which DuBois writes.

Walker uses both characterization and symbolism to achieve a unified vision of the battle for identity and self-consciousness faced by blacks in Americans. Slavery brought people from Africa to America and turned them into tools of capitalism and ever since the struggle has been to achieve an identity that combines their lost heritage with their new country. The problem has been compounded by the fact that so much of the heritage imposed upon them in this country has been as what they can do rather than as what they are. Walker successfully uses the symbolism of everyday items for everyday use to underscore this difficulty.