In Alice Walker’s tale of family and tradition, “Everyday Use” the author challenges the popular Black nationalists’ movement of the day. It was the heyday of the ideology of Black Power and the return to the African roots of the pre-slavery days. The eldest daughter, Dee, seeks to find her culture in the new movements that stress the importance of African culture, while rejecting the American heritage of the Black population. Although the black population prior to the 1950s and 1960s felt significant pain, many black American still took pride in the efforts that were taken to fight oppression.
In addition, as the black American fought through the pain of slavery, the population took pride in their scars and built a tradition that is still prevalent within the black population today. The character, Dee, joined the black nationalist movement that stressed the growth of black culture and art with the goal of furthering the desire for black liberation. Dee often wears traditional African attire, but has no understanding of what part of Africa embraced such attire.
Dee has no clue as to the African culture and her trend to copy it seems like folly.
Dee is shallow and should have more understanding of the culture she so wants to emulate (Hoel 1997).. The younger daughter, Maggie, embraces the African-American tradition through her love of quilting. The quilt becomes a metaphor for the ability to make something beautiful out of items to be thrown away. In other words, artwork is for use everyday.
It is just not made for the sake of the art (Hoel 1997). Similarly, the African-American tradition needs to be kept and honored and not rejected for the more popular trend of the day.
Walker presents a story of history and tradition within the black community. She challenges black citizenry to take pride not only in their African roots, but also in their history as oppressed members of the American society. Her story shows the conflict that exists between those of poverty and those who have rebelled against the ghetto to become one with what some see as white culture. A careful reading of the following will examine the issue further. “Everyday Use” A quilt is more than just scraps of material put together to make a bedspread. A quilt is representative of culture and tradition.
In Alice Walker’s poignant story, “Everyday Use,” the author uses the quilt as a symbol of respect for the history and tradition of African-Americans in the United States. In 1973, Alice Walker published “Everyday Use” which discussed the cultural artifact of the quilt that moved from a reputation as a tool in women’s sewing circles to that of a metaphor for the culture of African-Americans within the United States. Author Barbara Christian wrote of the short story that the quilting metaphor represents the legacy inherited by African-Americans from their ancestors (Whitsitt 2000).
The use of the quilt in metaphor has been around a long time; however, Walker was one of the first to discuss the quilt’s value in the African-American community and in its culture. On first glance the story appears to be of a mother’s rejection of an older, well-to-do, daughter’s values in favor of her less fortunate younger child. However, on closer examination the story is Walker examining the idea of African-American heritage (White 2002). “Everyday Use” is a short-story about traditions and their value.
The story features an African-American matriarch who must decide whether to honor a vow she made to give a family quilt to her younger daughter, Maggie. Maggie views the quilt as a practical item, but rich in tradition. Her other option, is to turn the quilt over to her older daughter, Dee. Dee is a social activist, who left home early to gain an education. Dee sees the quilt as something to hang on the wall as art (Dick, 2004). “Everyday Use” first appears in Alice Walker’s “In Love and Trouble. ” In the story, Walker deals with how an African-American in attempting to avoid poverty and prejudice, can risk deracination (Cowart 1996).
The story explains what happens to Dee when she returns home to her rural roots that she now considers beneath her. It is there that Dee tries to take back home with her some old quilts that were set to go to her sister, Maggie, as a dowry (Cowart 1996). After Dee’s arrival home, she informs her mother that she has rejected the name of Dee Johnson, and taken her African name of Wangero. This creates problems with her mother who cannot commit herself to the new name Dee has chosen. Dee’s fashionable ideas come into conflict with her mother’s idea of the value of African-American history and the struggle for equality and liberation.
(Cowart 1996). Scholars in and out of the Black community question if “Everyday Use” would have been as popular without the symbolism of the quilt. But the same scholars want to make sure that Walker holds an honorable position in the history of the quilt and to question any further is merely dishonoring both the quilt and Walker herself (Whitsitt 2000). Reading the short story carefully, there are threads that deal with Walker, her biography, politics, culture, and heritage. It is that history and culture of quilting that rings true throughout the story. There are those that see quilting as a method of storytelling.
Such a metaphor covers up the differences between the two as so often, the quilt is seen literally (Whitsitt 2000). Yet the quilt tends to provide unity between those elements of quilt making who see it as merely an activity of women and those who revere the quilt as more. The quilt still remains a metaphor for culture and heritage but it also creates an object of beauty. Scholars claim as cloth is stitched into a quilt; it is stitched to the very world of the quilt maker. The quilt binds women and men to the past, but the quilt moves women from the shadows into their own world (Whitsitt 2000).
The short story, “Everyday Use” begins with Mama and Maggie waiting in their front yard for a visit from Dee. It is a rural location that neither Mama nor Maggie had ever left. Dee, on the other hand, could not wait to leave home, go to school, and experience the world of the African-American woman (Whitsitt 2000). Scholars indicate that Maggie and her mother are waiting for not only Dee, but also for redemption. Mama tells a story about Dee, her daughter with style, determination, who has become a success in the world.
In mama’s story, she is on a Hollywood talk show and Mama comes backstage after her arrival at the studio in a fancy limousine. She is brought in by the host and her daughter is bragged upon. Mama then joins Dee on the stage where she notices the tears running down her daughter’s cheeks. In the dream, Mama says that she looks the way that Dee wishes she looked. She is much lighter and her skin like “uncooked pancakes” (Whitsitt 2000). Due to Dee’s idea of expectation and beauty in a world influenced by whites, Dee finds her mother not attractive (Smith, 2010).
In the second paragraph of the story, Mama considers how Maggie will act when Dee arrives for the visit. Mama thinks Maggie will be nervous and self-conscious because she has scars from a house fire. However, Maggie reacts differently than expected. She is disgusted by Dee and not envious (Tuten, 1994). Mama knows that she does not look like Dee’s ideal woman and sees the dream as a “mistake” (Whitsitt 2000). The dream indicates how badly Mama wants to feel respected by Dee and measure up in what she sees as the “white world” (Whitsitt 2000). Walker’s work features the theme of redemption and empowerment.
This redemption is the epiphany by Mama regarding her daughter, Maggie. Mama discovered that she turned her back on Maggie, her younger daughter who was severely burned in the blaze of the family’s first home. Maggie is described by Mama as having her eyes to the ground and her feet in a shuffle. Dee, on the other hand, always looked people in the eye regardless of whether black or white. For her part, Mama can not begin to think of looking a white man in the eyes. Mama claims that Dee would always “stare down any disaster” (Whitsitt 2000). Dee was, however, the daughter who left home and became successful in the heart of the 1960s.
Being successful for Dee, however, cost her to lose her links to her southern African-American heritage. When Dee arrives to see her mother and sister, she kisses her mother on the forehead and then starts taking pictures with her camera. Dee, of course, is not in the photos. Dee was looking to frame the very world that she came from. She wanted to show how far she had come. Dee is the prodigal child who does not get the warm welcome she expected. Mama, for her part, dislikes Dee’s egotism. Maggie is disgusted with Dee (Whitsitt 2000). There are some scholars who see Dee’s character as evil.
Walker, however, sees Dee as an “autonomous person” (Whitsitt 2000). Dee arrived at the house wearing her colorful African attire and claims a new African name, Wangero. According to writer Mary Helen Washington, “Walker is most closely aligned in the story with the bad daughter. ” (Whitsitt 2000). She is the one who traveled the world and returned wearing new garb. The story ends with Mama rejecting Dee and aligning herself with Maggie. Washington quotes Susan Willis who said that the black writer removes material from folk culture and turns it into story, yet is involved in activity that is full of contradiction.
Dee is shunned by the community. Diana Fuss in the review, “Essentially Speaking” says it is preferable to keep chaos going than to try to eliminate it as when Dee is muted at the end of the story (Whitsitt 2000). Dee takes the photos of the house and frames the situation clearly for Mama and Maggie. It is clear that Dee is framing a picture that exludes her. This represents Dee’s method of maintaining a relationship to the home, without being part of it. She did not want to show the link between herself and her family and tradition (Whitsitt 2000). When Dee arrives at the home and brings the camera, each snapshot features the home.
Many readers’ view this as a reflection of Dee’s fickle manner (Tuten, 1994). Most scholars indicate that Dee wants a picture of her family home so she can display her humble roots when they become fashionable. Yet, it becomes important for the reader to understand that when it comes to Dee’s attitude and haughtiness, there is only Mama’s word that is considered (Tuten, 1994). “Everyday Use” is told in the first person by Mama. However, the tense moves into past tense in the middle of the story. The use of the first person indicates a lack of narrative authority with Mama merely telling a story.
However, when the story shifts to past tense, the author is making Mama’s voice stronger. Mama gains the ability in the second half of the story to distance herself from the character of Dee. The change in tense occurs after Dee remarks that “Dee is dead” (Whitsitt 2000). The past tense indicates that Mama is now in control. So Mama moves towards the views of Maggie and her voice becomes stronger. Mama dislikes Dee’s ego and attitude, but at the same time wants her respect. Therefore, Mama too often finds herself judging herself by Dee’s standards that realistically she will not be able to meet (Tuten, 1993).
The climax of the story is when Mama takes the quilts away from Dee and puts them in the lap of Maggie. When Dee wants to take the quilts with her, readers see the establishment of a dichotomy. Mama and Maggie represent the “everyday use’ of the quilt and Dee represent an artificial aesthetics that removes things from use. Maggie looks at the quilts as a process. Dee sees them as a commodity (Whitsitt 2000). Throughout the story, readers see Dee removing all articles that are of everyday use. The quilts, on the other hand, were tucked away in a trunk. They were made by Mama’s mother and quilted by other family members.
Dee indicates that if the quilts were given to Maggie that she would destroy them. Mama says, “I reckon she would…God know I been saving ‘em for long enough with nobody using ‘em” (Whitsitt 2000). Those that crafted the quilt appreciated what they were doing. Quilts were often signed by the maker with an indication given as to who should inherit them. They were treated with respect and had value. Mama promised them to Maggie for when she got married. Dee wanted to hang the quilts on a wall. But Mama reaches her point of anger and believes that Dee in denigrating her way of life.
When Dee says that Maggie was backward and could not appreciate the quilts, Mama saw herself as being included. Mama was taken by surprise by that statement, but she soon has an epiphany. When Dee said that Maggie would turn the quilts into rags in no time, Mama responds that if so, Maggie could make some more (Whitsitt 2000). Maggie, however, said Dee could have the quilts. Maggie had knowledge of quilting and that is where the true value was present. She showed her independence by offering to let Dee take the quilts if that is what she wanted.
In the end of the story, Dee indicates to Mama that she and Maggie do not know anything about their heritage. Mama ends up kissing Maggie for the first time (Whitsitt 2000). Scholars emphasize the awakening of Mama to the superficiality of Dee and the understanding by Maggie of the importance of culture and heritage. When Mama gives the quilts to Maggie and removed them from Dee, Mama is confirming the worth of Maggie. Maggie is given a true voice. Elaine Hedges calls this the “reconciliation scent” as Mama gives quits to Maggie the previously victimized child (Tuten 1993).
In the story, Walker emphasizes how important language is and expresses the dangers when it is misused. But Dee uses language in such a way as to manipulate and oppress. When visiting her family home, Dee read to Mama and her sister. Mama felt like Dee was treating them as if they were ignorant. Mama said, “Dee washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t need to know” (Tuten 1993). It is clear that Mama mistrusts language and recognizes more value in actions. When Mama dumps the quilts into Maggie’s lap and hugs her, she is sending a non-verbal message (Tuten 1993).
A great deal of the work of Alice Walker deals with the dawning of a character’s idea of self. With Mama coming to appreciate Maggie, it shows a strong bond between mother and daughter. Prior to removing the quilts from Dee, Mama remarked that she did something she had not done before. In this statement, Mama is saying that she embraced her younger daughter, Maggie for the first time, while telling her older daughter, Dee, “no. ” Mama recognized that she had been judging Maggie by the standards of Dee. In the nonverbal language, Mama is standing with Maggie in the rejection of Dee’s values.
(Tuten 1993). In the final part of the story, neither Maggie nor Mama mentions Dee by name. However, her sunglasses are mentioned, along with the dust she created as she drove away in her car. This absence contrasts heavily with the story’s beginning when Mama and Maggie are waiting for Dee. At the end of the story, Dee’s voice becomes mute as Mama narrated her out of the short story (Tuten 1994). Most scholars praise Mama and Maggie for their allegiance to folk heritage and sense of family and their refusal to change in accordance with modern ways of thinking.
However, these ideas tend to condemn the character of Dee and portray her as condescending, manipulative or shallow. These scholars see the character as interested in fashion, style, and beauty and without knowledge of her heritage. However insensitive Dee might be, she offers a different view of heritage and a method to cope with the oppressive society experienced by many African-Americans throughout history (Farrell 1998). As the story is narrated by Mama, the reader builds a perception of both Dee and Maggie. The view that Mama has of Maggie is not completely true.
Mama sees Maggie as passive, but in reality Maggie can stand up for herself and her family traditions. It is possible, as well, that the view Mama has of Dee is wrong as well. As the story begins, it appears as though Maggie and Mama are waiting more for a goddess than for a family member. It appears that Dee has assumed a mythical position and awe in the eyes of Mama. Mama suggests that Maggie will be nervous while Dee visits, but the contrary is more accurate. It seems that Mama’s expectations of her oldest daughter are inaccurate as well as are her feelings regarding Dee’s emotions.
Mama wrote at one time that she believed Dee disliked Maggie as much as she despised the former family home. Yet, Mama changed her thoughts regarding this. However, it is clear that Dee does not care for the home that represents her poverty stricken upbringing (Tuten, 1994). Some scholars claim that the view Mama has of Dee tells readers more about the mother, than the oldest daughter. Although Mama watches Dee’s actions carefully, and wishes she was more like her, Mama is still uncomfortable looking in the eyes of especially white men.
Dee never had an issue looking another person in the eye. So Mama sees Dee as demanding and self-centered, but also a strong advocate and fighter for her own rights. It is clear that Dee cares about style and fashion; but will take the steps necessary to insure she lives a good life. For example, Dee wanted a new dress but was without money. Mama accepted her lot in life, but not Dee. Dee was determined to overcome any obstacles that stood in the way of her success Therefore, she took an old green outfit that was given to Mama and sewed the new dress. (Tuten 1994).
Mama has a fearful nature that is clear in how she reacts to learning new words. She associates new words with fabrication. She felt ignorant when Dee read books to her. Mama never had much opportunity for education. Her school closed its doors in 1927. Mama was in the second grade. Mama did not fight for her education. She learned acquiescence, and submissive behavior. Dee, on the other hand, did not accept things that were not right in her eyes (Tuten, 1994). Most literary scholars think Dee’s desire to read to Maggie and Mama as proof of her repudiation of heritage and family identity.
According to Donna Winchell, “Dee tries to force on “ Maggie and her mother, “knowledge they probably do not need,” (Tuten, 1994). However, should the story be told through Dee’s narration, the attitudes and values might see quite different. Is the effort to extend education to Maggie and her mother a negative thing? Most people would respond, “no. ” Dee took the African name of “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” because she indicated that it bothered her to carry the name of people who oppressed African-Americans. For some scholars, Maggie and Mama have the accurate sense of black heritage.
They see Dee as a shallow person with much to learn about the history and tradition of her own family. Maggie and her mother, on the other hand, need to learn more about fighting oppression and African-American history (Tuten, 1994). When Dee meets her mother using Lugandan, she is repudiating the language of slavery which is English (Cowart 1996). From the start, Mama is uncomfortable with Dee’s selfishness, but remains proud of her daughter’s success. It is clear Mama is disappointed in Dee’s change of name, but tried to use the new name just the same. Often Mama’s use of the name was filled with sarcasm.
Mama’s usage started clearly with the name Wangero. Her usage then shifted to Dee Wangero and back again to Dee. With each transition, scholars notice a shift in Mama’s attitude towards her eldest daughter (White 2002). When Mama looks seriously at Maggie, she sees the vision of her own mother and sister. She believes that these were the women that Dee now is rejecting by her repudiation of black American culture. As Mama looks upon Maggie and sees the scarred hands from the fire, it becomes obvious to her as to which daughter would appreciate having the quilts (White 2002).
In this story, the character, Dee, hangs quilts on the wall as a way to care and preserve them. She said Maggie would use them and ruin them. When Mama took the quilts and plopped them into the lap of Maggie, she appears more characteristic of Dee than her younger daughter (Tuten 1994). Another theme that runs through “Everyday Use” is the use of animals as imagery. The short-story takes place within a pasture where “beef-cattle peoples” work and live (Guesser 2003). In addition, the character of Maggie is said to have a memory like an elephant. The older sister, Dee, has a voice that is “sweet as a bird.
” In addition, the authors says that Dee’s hair stands straight up like “the wool on a sheep” and she has pigtails that are described as “small lizards disappearing behind her ears” (Guesser 2003). There are also images involving dogs and cows that come before the scene where Mama makes the decision to give the quilts to her older daughter. Mama often describes her daughter Maggie as a “frightened animal. ” She describes Maggie as “cowering. ” In addition, when Dee takes the photograph of the family at the beginning of the story, Dee includes, Mama, Maggie, the house, and the cow in the pasture (Guesser 2003).
It was Mama who said at one point that she used to like milking cows until one of them “hooked her on the side” and said, “Cows are soothing and slow and don’t bother you unless you try to milk them in the wrong way” (Guesser 2003). Even more imagery is used when Mama compares Maggie’s scars to a lame animal. “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 ignorant enough to be kind to him? That’s the way my Maggie walks” (Guesser 2003). The quilts that Dee wants to take with her link one generation to the next.
The quilts represent African-American history and tradition. In fact, the quilts consist of parts of dresses that were worn by Dee’s grandmother and her great-grandmother. One of the quilts consists of a part of a uniform that was worn by Dee’s great-grandfather as a Union soldier in the Civil War. Therefore, the quilts are part of African-American tradition and heritage (Cowart 1996). Dee does not understand that she denigrated African-American heritage by her actions. Mama sees Dee’s name change as an act of betrayal. Mama indicated the name “Dee” could be traced back prior to the Civil War.
Dee, on the other hand, saw the name as a reminder that African-Americans had been denied their authentic African names (Cowart 1996). Mama and Maggie believed that an African-American who tries to be African is nothing but fake. Dee escaped her humble roots and family. She left the ghetto, but feels like nobody respects her. The answer may be in her repudiation of her African- American heritage. All of Dee’s choices in life have been based on trends within the culture. First there was integration after Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.
Then there was the outrage of African-Americans in what was called the long hot summer of 1967. This was followed by the popularity of Islam. Up until this point most African-Americans embraced Christianity. Most scholars see Dee as disliking her mother, sister and church that was responsible for much of her early education (Cowart 1996). Walker lures the readers into a dislike for Dee, especially due to her lack of respect for Maggie. Many scholars see Maggie as representing many black women who are oppressed, while the one escapes into a world of liberation.
Although Dee was not responsible for the house that burned to the ground, most scholars believed she was delighted in its demise. The house was representative of what Dee sought to escape. It was more than just an attempt to end poverty. The house represented the violent past of the African-American. This fire blazes on with survivors just like Maggie wearing scars of honor (Cowart 1996). Both sisters represent the effort reestablish black identity after the tragedies experienced by African-Americans in this nation. But Dee does not understand how the black community has turned the wrongs into moral righteousness and capital.
She is blinded to the strength and integrity of the African-American institutions that developed in the aftermath of the oppressive past. Maggie and her mother have character that stems from the oppression and adversity of the past. Dee, on the other hand, is ashamed of her family and her past (Cowart 1996). According to Cowart (1996), the story features three houses. The first house burned and left scars upon Maggie. The second house shelters Maggie and Mama who are seen as survivors. The third house, however, houses heritage and culture.
At one point, Dee wants to take the lid of a butter churn and turn it into a centerpiece for a dining table. Such is the case with the quilts, she wants to hang them on the wall. It appears that Dee thinks the way to rescue history is by turning it into a commodity (Cowart 1996). It is important to understand the time frame of this story. It is set in the late 1960s or early 1970s during a time when the African-American was trying to define their cultural identity. During this time the word “Negro” was taken from everyday language and replaced with the word “black.
” During these difficult years, groups that glorified the black experience were born. For example, black power, black nationalism, and black pride became vehicles for African-Americans to examine their roots. There were many blacks who wanted to embrace their African roots, while rejecting their heritage within America. Walker makes the argument that the word American in African-American cannot be ignored. She argued that doing so is disrespectful of one’s ancestors (White 2002). In the story, Mama describes herself as big-boned. She said that she could kill and clean a hog just like a man.
This description of her and the fact that she only had a second grade education indicates that Mama takes pride in what she can accomplish. The fact that she is uneducated and is not as refined as Dee, does not stop her from respecting those who came before. This is obvious because of Mama’s knowledge of the cloth within the quilts and where each piece originated. Mama values the quilts. When she feels them, she is feeling the very people whose material is sewed in the patches. Similarly, the butter churn represents family. When Mama picks up the church, she is touching those who used the churn before her.
(White 2002). The story shows Dee as bright, but egotistical. Walker uses the character to symbolize the new black power. During these years, the Black Power movement featured beautiful, bright, vocal and aggressive women. These women spoke negatively about the Uncle Tom ancestors and took on African dress, speech and culture. Walker is not attempting to be critical of the Black Power Movement, but is challenging those within the movement who do not value the culture and history of the black person within the United States (White 2002).
At one point in the story, Mama said that Dee promised to come see them regardless of where their home happened to be. Mama believed that Dee believed she belonged to a higher social and intellectual class that she and her daughter, Maggie, did. It is clear, however, that Dee’s new values, the name, boyfriend, and costume, are merely just signs of frivolity towards her new-found culture (White 2002). Author Helga Hoel studied the name Wangero and Kemanjo and discovered that they were Kikiyu names that had been misspelled. The correct spelling is Wanjiro and Kamenjo. The name Leewanika is, in fact, an African name.
However, it is not from the nation of Kikiyu (White 2002). These inconsistent factors indicate that Dee maintains a superficial nature and lack of true commitment to the ideals. Dee’s lack of knowledge of her African history is no different from her lack of knowledge of her American heritage and culture. Dee knew she was named for her Aunt, but did not realize how many generations of women carried that name. When Dee wants to remove the churn dasher and take it with her, she does not understand its history. When she makes the decision to take the quilts she said, “these are all pieces of dresses grandma used to wear.
She did all the stitching by hand” (White 2002). What Dee missed was that the quilts were made by Mama, Big Dee, and Grandma Dee. This absence of knowledge is synonymous with the black movements of the 60s and their repudiation of American culture and heritage. Again, Maggie represents the neglect of American heritage. She has the scars, just like other African-Americans from the days of slavery (White 2002). Maggie tends to represent the image of the post-Civil War black woman with her eyes looking downward and her feet shuffling along the ground.
Dee shows her repudiation of African-American heritage in her refusal to interact with Maggie. Yet, Maggie is aware of her heritage and takes great pride in it. This is evident in her due to the comment made regarding the churn dasher. Maggie said, “Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash. His name was Henry but they called him dash” (White 2002). Maggie knew the history of the dasher, and Dee did not. It is clear Maggie understood her history when she indicates a willingness to give the quilts to her sister. She said, “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (White 2002).
It was Dee who complained Maggie would put the quilts to into everyday use. Dee, on the other hand, planned to hang the quilts on the wall to remind her of her superiority. In the story, Walker’s argument is that the definition of African-American heritage is not for the black power movements to decide upon. She sends the message that African-Americans must own their own heritage, even the parts that were painful. Mama is just one of many people of the day who struggled to reconcile their past with the civil rights gains of the 1960s (White 2002).
When Mama vows to give the quilt to Maggie, she is validating her youngest daughter’s values and belief system. The point that is being made is that to understand culture one must use an item everyday. Everyday use makes the past come to life (Cuizon 2009). For Dee’s part the tradition is something corrupted by history and has no everyday use. The two different beliefs regarding African-American history creates the tension within this family. Mama admits she is big-boned and made to work. Dee does not find this attractive in a black woman.
At one end of the spectrum is beauty, and at the other is useful (Smith 2010). In conclusion, Walker presents a portrait of an African-American family of the 1960s. It membership is conflicted by their desire to escape the poverty of the ghetto and at the same time respect those who came before them. The desire to embrace their African heritage at times conflicts with this desire to respect those who suffered tyranny under the rebel flag. Walker, through the characters of “Everyday Use” questions the values of black nationalists and suggests more emphasis be placed upon those whose scars of oppression still remain.