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Heritage in Walker’s “Everyday Use” Short Story Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2021

Introduction

In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use”, the author places two sisters side by side for an afternoon of visiting. One of these sisters, Maggie, lives with her mother in a small, poorly built shack on the edge of the country and is planning to marry a somewhat unattractive but dependable man in their small town. As a child, she was caught in a fire and still bears significant scarring on her legs and arms, a fact that makes her shy and withdrawn.

The other sister, Dee, lives a beautiful life in the city with her good looks, her outgoing charm, and her refusal to be denied. Her status with the man she travels with is unknown, but her attitudes and behaviors are that of a middle-class urban black woman attempting to recapture a sense of her heritage. While both girls can be seen to honor their past and the cultural heritage from which they descended, Walker demonstrates a deeper appreciation for a person’s heritage that can only be obtained through everyday use.

Main body

The type of interest Dee shows in her surroundings is immediately depicted as approaching cultural awareness from a distance. The perfect image of a mother for Dee is someone other than her own, someone “a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights” (Walker, 2007), indicating someone who has not worked hard outside most of her life with more important things to be concerned about than cosseting her hair. Further distancing her from this heritage, Dee was sent to the Augusta school where she learned to love the stories she read about in books and grew up wanting nice things.

While she apparently loves her mother and sister, “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” (Walker, 2007), it is also apparent that she takes little or no pride in her own past.

This is much different from the awareness of her heritage displayed by Maggie, who lives the lifestyle alongside her mother and is more intimately aware of the stories behind each of the pieces Dee determines she will take back with her to the city. The items Dee wishes to take from the house are all strongly associated with her culture and past, but she intends to put them to alternate uses within her home, “’I can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,’ she said, sliding a plate over the chute, ‘and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher’” (Walker, 2007). In taking some of these things, she is removing useful tools regularly used for the purposes intended by Maggie and her mother.

In the end, Dee can’t understand why her mother might not allow her to ‘properly’ take care of something as valuable as the heritage quilt she’s dug out of her mother’s trunk. She would hang them on the wall and take ‘proper’ care of them as opposed to Maggie, who would use them on her beds as a reminder of the wonderful grandmother who began piecing them together, the industry of the women of the family in stitching it and the history of the family as the cloth included such items as a small fragment of a uniform her great-great-grandfather wore when he fought in the Civil War. Maggie remembers all of this information about the quilts, but Dee identifies them only as something her grandmother once did and as a symbol of the industry of the oppressed.

Conclusion

Dee’s valuation of her heritage came from the externally defined values of the greater mass culture she encountered in the city. She was not able to appreciate the work that went into the making of the quilts or the real use of the butter churn that her mother still used to make her butter. By contrast, Maggie was able to remember many more details about her true heritage as it was experienced and lived by those who came before her through her intimate understanding of the uses of the various items that had come to represent that heritage. As a result, she had a deeper and more authentic understanding of where she had come from and where she was going.

Works Cited

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” 2008. Web.

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