Everyday Use is a frequently anthologized chef-d’oeuvre short story by Alice Walker highlighting the problem of cultural identity and heritage among African Americans after the abolishment of slavery. Narrated in the first person, the story revolves around three characters – Mama and her two daughters, Dee (Wangero) and Maggie. Mama is caught up between two clashing views of African heritage held by Dee and Maggie. Walker uses these two characters to show the cultural and heritage dilemma that African Americans had to deal with after slavery and throughout the era of the civil rights movement. This paper discusses how Walker, in Everyday Use, makes a statement about cultural identity and heritage among African Americans.
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Claims Made in the Story
Walker seems to claim that slavery and its subsequent abolishment created a conflict among African Americans concerning their heritage and cultural identity. On the one side, slavery robbed Africans of both. Immediately after becoming a slave, Africans were required to change their names and forget about their language and culture. Maggie represents the harm that slavery caused to Africans. When describing her, Mama says, “Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks” (Walker 333). She is the aftermath of the destruction that slavery had on Africans and their cultural identity. She is dull, uneducated, and full of both emotional and physical scars.
However, after the abolishment of slavery and the subsequent civil rights movement, Africans were educated. Therefore, they started understanding the damage that slavery had caused to their identity and heritage. Such enlightened Africans fought for their civil rights and the restoration of their heritage. Ironically, these individuals were unaware of the very heritage they were claiming. Dee represents this side of the conflict. While she has changed her name to Wangero, which is African, she does not understand her heritage. She is oblivious of the fact that her name, Dee, is generational because it was adopted from her great-grandmother. She also does not know the history of the quilts she wants to own. In other words, she does not understand the cultural identity that she claims to defend.
How the Author’s Background and Life Experiences Influence the Theme
Walker was born in 1944 in Eatonton to black sharecroppers. Her family was extremely poor and being raised as the last born in a family of eight children meant that her life was difficult. Her life was limited by poverty and the fact that her brother shot her in the right eye with a BB gun when playing a game of cowboys and Indians (Lazo 25). She was teased and rejected due to this disfigurement until it was rectified later in life during her college years. She left Eatonton after securing a government scholarship to study at Spelman College in Atlanta in 1961 (Lazo 34). During this time, she got involved in the civil rights movement.
The plotline of Everyday Use mirrors Walker’s life experiences. She lived in conflict with herself – first by being brought up in poverty and ridiculed for her disfigured eye, and second by getting a higher education and becoming a champion of civil rights. Walker is talking about her conflicting sides – one that is conservative and shy and another being bold, educated, and aware of her rights. Cowart argues that the “story can be read, in fact, as a cautionary tale the author tells herself: a parable, so to speak, about the perils of writing one’s impoverished past from the vantage of one’s privileged present” (176).
In the broad context, Walker designs the story to underscore the conflict that African Americans faced concerning their cultural identity and heritage after the abolition of slavery. On the one hand, they were emancipated and educated to acknowledge the erosion of their cultural identity through slavery. On the other hand, they were suffering from the subjugation of slavery, and thus they were caught up between these two worlds.
Walker uses irony as a literary device to depict the conflict about cultural identity and heritage that African Americans were experiencing in the 20th century. Dee wants to reclaim her cultural identity because she cannot be associated with white people. She says, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker 337). Therefore, she wants an African identity, which explains why she is now called Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Ironically, she does not understand the heritage of the very identity she claims to pursue. This aspect stands out clearly when she talks about the quilts. She wants to hang them on the wall as cultural artifacts, but in African heritage, they are intended for everyday use.
On the other hand, Maggie, albeit uneducated, understands the meaning of the quilts. She wants to use them and replace them if worn out as part of the family’s history. Therefore, while Dee seeks to reclaim her cultural identity, she is conflicted because she has no real understanding of her ancestors. Towards the end of the story, she criticizes her mother and Maggie for being stuck in their old way of thinking. She is disconnected from the very past she claims to revere by changing her name (Cowart 172). This aspect shows the disconnect that African Americans had concerning their heritage while fighting for civil rights and the recognition of their heritage, while at the same time keeping up with modernity and being assimilated into the western culture.
Characters that Speak on behalf of the Theme
Mama, Dee, Hakim, and Maggie speak on behalf of the theme of conflicting cultural identity and heritage among African Americans. Hakim identifies with Black Islam, but he “does not appear to be a good representative of these or any other ideals” (Sarnowski 272). Mama speaks for African Americans, who are torn between their cultural identity and western ideas. Maggie represents the side of Africans that was devastated by slavery and remained voiceless for long but held on to their heritage. On the other hand, Dee stands for the emancipated and empowered Africans, who wanted to reclaim their cultural identities, but they found some of the aspects and traditions repulsive and outdated. Maggie and Dee are the conflicting voices within Mama.
The first symbol used in this story is the quilts. They represent the strong bonds created between women of different generations to underscore their enduring legacy. Mama had promised to give Maggie some quilts during her marriage. The quilts are symbols of Mama’s cultural heritage and traditions. Mama says, “These old things were just done by me and Big Dee from some tops your grandma pieced before she died” (Walker 341). Therefore, the quilts carry the family’s history, and that heritage should be passed from one generation to the other. However, Dee does not appreciate this deep meaning of the quilts, and thus she rejects the cultural identity that she is pursuing. This aspect underscores the theme of cultural conflict as presented in this story.
The second symbol is the house, which was burned to the ground, and scarred Maggie in the process. The house represents the cultural identity of African Americans before slavery. Their heritage was strong and revered. However, slavery and poverty came along and burned down the culture (Maggie), and when it was abolished, the freed Africans remained with a conflicted view of their identities (Dee was born).
Cowart posits, “This burned house, however, represents more than failed attempt to eradicate poverty. It subsumes a whole African American history of violence, from slavery…to the pervasive inner-city violence of subsequent decades” (174). Mama tries to reconcile the two warring sides (Dee and Maggie), and she succeeds to some extent. The story ends with the two of them “sitting in silence, just enjoying until bedtime” (Tuten 126). Similarly, African Americans learned to live with their scars from slavery, violence, and poverty and at the same time adopted the western culture.
In Everyday Use, Walker narrates a story of conflicting cultural ideals that she faced at a personal level and which most African Americans encountered after the end of slavery. Dee claims to revere a cultural heritage that she does not understand. On the other hand, Maggie does not recognize that she is emancipated, and thus she is no longer bound by her inferiority, poverty, and lack of education. Mama has to live with these two conflicting sides. Walker succeeds to tell her personal story of struggle and at the same time chronicles the cultural identity dilemma that African Americans had to live with after slavery.
Cowart, David. “Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s “Everyday Use”.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 33, 1996, pp. 171-184.
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Lazo, Caroline. Alice Walker: Freedom Writer. Lerner Publications Company, 2000.
Sarnowski, Joe. “Destroying to Save: Idealism and Pragmatism in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 48, 269-286.
Tuten, Nancy. “Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”.” The Explicator, vol. 52, no. 2, 1993, pp. 125-128.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Short Story Masterpieces by American Writers, edited by Clarence Strowbridge, Dover Publications, 2014, pp. 331-344.