Pride and Heritage in “Everyday Use”

February 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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