Heritage and Narrative Style in Alice Walker’s Essay
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Everyday Use (1973), one of legendary author Alice Walker’s most popular and often anthologized short stories, employs a unique narrative style that serves not as a device to indicate chronology of events, but for a more significant goal. The transitions between the different tenses—past, present and future—symbolize the conflict exposed in the story of a black woman and her two daughters, who are polar opposites of each other. Specifically, it tackles the discussion of the African-American heritage, used in the story as a stage for different interpretations coming from various points of knowledge.
The voices changes represent debates of future vs. present, present vs. past, affirmation vs. negation, and family vs. heritage. The narrator is the woman, Mrs. Johnson, referred to by her daughters as “Mama”, who lives in rural American South presumably during the late 1960s or early 70s. She has two daughters—Dee, the prettier one who left home for the city to study; and Maggie, of the many burn scars from a fire that raged their first home, and is painfully shy and prefers to stay in the background.
The events start with the arrival of Dee, after many years, with her mother and sister preparing for the moment. This is mainly the reason for the future tense used in the opening paragraphs, as Mrs. Johnson describes how the just-swept yard looks like, and how nervous Maggie seems. Anticipation for what they may witness upon the arrival of Dee is clearly communicated, as well as references to the world they live in, unchanged by time yet comfortable for its occupants.
Here, the typical texture of rural black America is subtly depicted, as detailed by the hard clay yard and the presence of elm trees. The next parts suddenly shift to present tense, as Mr. Johnson describes herself, and her relationship with her daughters. and the personalities of the two girls. She reveals her farm life and background, and how this contrasts and echoes the resulting characters of Dee and Maggie. Introspection is used throughout, indicating the inner debate Mrs. Johnson has with herself and possibly to validate her failure or success in raising her daughters.
She speaks of Maggie in the present tense, but later changes to the past when describing Dee—showing that her familiarity with her girl remains purely in her memory. She compares Dee’s life as a teenager with that of her own, defining the obvious differences in attitude, education, and opportunities received. Several mentions of how Dee refused to live in the old house and possibly in the new one, representative of backwoods life, are points of emphasis referring to her character and attitude. These two observations, both real and anticipated, are the first hints at Dee’s negation of their heritage.
Mrs. Johnson’s narrative also tells of another symbolic scene, as their first house burned down—when Maggie was marked with the permanent burn scars. Dee, while it was happening, was a safe distance away as she watched the burning intently, oblivious to the danger and the harm it was causing her sister. This image serves as an illustration of Dee’s hatred of the culture and heritage they have come to know, and how it has scarred her sister and rendered her insecure and invisible. Dee, who lives by her own rules, ultimately emerges as the clear winner in this phase of their unspoken battle.
The narration of Dee’s arrival again begins with the future tense, but is literally cut abruptly by her presence. The voice shifts back to present, as Mrs. Johnson describes in graphic detail the strangeness of her daughter’s appearance, with a decidedly humorous tone that connotes subtle sarcasm over the absurdity. Dee, who now wants to be called Wangero, is made to appear like a caricature; the same, if not worse, goes for her male companion, who introduces himself as the Muslim Asalamalakim.
The action is shown through various details that indicate both insincerity and pretense, starting with Dee’s laughable affectations in using a Polaroid camera—a symbol of technology, and, in this context, a device used to separate herself with her old life—her stylized wardrobe, and Asalamalakim’s unreal claim of his religious preference. Dee’s appearance in supposedly native African garb can be best described as her own personal style, and not cultural; Mrs. Johnson confirms this by recalling a unique trait of her daughter, that she always knew what style was, and was never without her own.
But when Mrs. Johnson questions Dee, or Wangero, about her name change, her daughter simply and directly replies that Dee is dead. At this point, the narrative tense makes the most significant shift in the whole story—because this is the defining moment when Dee has become Wangero, and has finally revealed her decision to cut her African-American affinity, and consequently, her ties with her family. The concept of grief, which always alludes to the past, enters Mrs. Johnson’s narrative as a technique to contain the events as part of memory, and to point toward closure.
As the story progresses, Wangero seems to take a curious interest in certain objects in the house, regular items that are used for their purpose yet pinpoint the kind of lifestyle its owners have. Wangero looks at them like souvenirs or decorative pieces that would be symbols of a life she has left, that solely serve as art. Her claim to the butter churn indicates her goal to showcase the object as a foreign memento, much like the Polaroid photos she took of her family and the house. However, while the churn was indeed a kitchen tool often used, its relevance to Mrs.
Johnson and Maggie is closely-connected to their family’s history, because it was made by one of their relatives—coincidentally, the husband of the aunt Dee was named after. After a while, Wangero moves on to search for something that turns out to be the main reason for her visit: the set of quilts sewn by her grandmother, assisted by her mother and aunt. They were made from her grandmother’s dresses, and were all hand-stitched. For families like theirs, the quilts stand for values and relationships, and the time it took to create them also refer to togetherness and female bonding.
Again, just like the churn, Wangero wanted the quilts for show—but on a larger scale. What have always been objects with purpose, meaning, and value in personal terms were about to be turned into conversation pieces and lonely wall decor; for this is exactly what Wangero had in mind. Mrs. Johnson informs her that she is reserving the quilts for when Maggie weds equally average John Thomas, but Wangero declares that Maggie would only put them to everyday use, and would eventually destroy such great pieces of art. The same ‘art’ that she had deemed old-fashioned when Mrs. Johnson offered her one went she went off to college.
Maggie, as always, is willing to give up the quilts to her sister, but at this instance, her mother is overcome with her own realization—that the quilts deserved to stay with Maggie, possibly the one tangible representation of equality between her daughters. Wangero expresses her disgust over her family’s seeming ignorance and disrespect for their heritage, as she defined it, and for their lack of drive and objective. She departs by wearing oversized sunglasses, covering most of her face, yet another symbol of Wangero’s mindset to cover up and maintain a facade over her real identity.
The last sentence of the story returns to present tense, as Mrs. Johnson relates how she and Maggie would just sit there, enjoying checkerberry snuff, unmindful of Wangero’s exit. Clearly, the narrator opts for this change to refer to actual change in their lives; she no longer had Wangero on a pedestal, and instead realized the value of the daughter who chose family over all else. Alice Walker made use of the innovative device of shifting tenses to communicate the reality of many black American families in the debate between heritage and empowerment.
During this period, when racism and equality were still being discussed on a national scale, heritage exclusively referred to family and traditional values. The cultural identity and affirmation Wangero sought appeared shallow, for its sole meaning to her was for showcase, and was simply a rejection of all things familiar and valuable. The transposition of tenses shows Wangero’s superficial understanding of her newfound ideology, and the greater problem of her family’s acceptance if it. The device also plays out Mrs.
Johnson’s predicament in making a wise choice, as established by the many questions she asked herself in the beginning of the story. Much of it was about her two girls, and which one she would choose—the smart, beautiful Dee, or the timid, deformed Maggie? Eventually, her decision, albeit unconsciously, was slowly and firmly made as she discovered how easy it had always been for Dee to turn her back on family and heritage. Because heritage for Dee or Wangero was one that was shown and remembered through photos and mementos, as detached from her self as old history books.