Unpacking Heritage and Identity in 'Everyday Use' by Alice Walker


Welcome to an exploration of Alice Walker's captivating short story, "Everyday Use." Published in 1973 as part of her collection "In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women," this narrative takes us on a journey into the complexities of heritage, identity, and the ever-evolving nature of familial bonds. In this essay, we will delve deep into the heart of the story, examining its central themes, characters, symbols, and the broader cultural context in which it is set.

"Everyday Use" is a poignant tale that resonates with readers of all backgrounds.

It introduces us to the struggles within a rural African American family and the clash of values and perspectives between two sisters, Dee (Wangero) and Maggie, and their mother, Mama. Through their interactions and choices, Alice Walker presents us with thought-provoking questions about the significance of cultural heritage and the ways in which it is perceived and embraced.

Throughout this essay, we will dissect the story's elements, including the characters' motivations and conflicts, the symbolism of objects, and the story's cultural and historical context.

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Our aim is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the rich tapestry of themes interwoven in "Everyday Use" and appreciate its lasting impact on literature and discussions of heritage.

Author's Background

Alice Walker, the accomplished author of "Everyday Use," was born on February 9, 1944, in Eatonton, Georgia. Growing up in the racially segregated South, Walker experienced the profound impact of racism and inequality from an early age. These experiences deeply influenced her writings and her commitment to social justice.

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Walker's literary journey was marked by her engagement with the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement. She became an influential voice in both of these movements, advocating for the rights of African Americans and women. Her works often explore the intersections of race, gender, and class, making her a pivotal figure in African American and feminist literature.

The context in which Walker wrote "Everyday Use" is significant. The story was published in the early 1970s, a period marked by the Black Arts Movement and a resurgence of interest in African American culture and heritage. Walker's writing reflects her desire to celebrate and preserve the rich cultural heritage of African Americans while challenging traditional narratives of the time.

Walker's own experiences as a writer and activist infuse "Everyday Use" with a deep sense of authenticity and purpose. Her commitment to highlighting the complexities of African American life, particularly the lives of black women, shines through in her storytelling.

Understanding Alice Walker's background and her contributions to literature and social activism provides valuable context for our analysis of "Everyday Use." It allows us to appreciate the personal and societal influences that shaped this compelling narrative.

Plot Summary

"Everyday Use" is a story that unfolds in the rural South, featuring a family composed of three central characters: Mama, Dee (Wangero), and Maggie. The narrative begins with Mama's anticipation of Dee's visit to their humble home. Dee, who has transformed herself into an Afrocentric intellectual, arrives with a new name and a desire to claim heritage objects from her family's past.

The central conflict revolves around the quilts that have been passed down through generations. Mama initially intends to give these quilts to Dee, who sees them as art pieces to be displayed. However, Maggie, who has always lived a simpler life and understands the quilts' true value, hopes to use them for their intended purpose—to keep her warm. This conflict highlights the differing views on heritage and the objects that represent it.

The story takes a poignant turn when Mama makes a decision regarding the quilts. This decision ultimately speaks to the themes of heritage, identity, and the meaning of everyday objects that are woven throughout the narrative. It prompts reflection on the significance of preserving one's cultural roots and understanding the history embedded in everyday items.

As we delve deeper into the analysis, we will explore the motivations and perspectives of each character, dissect the symbolism of the quilts and other objects, and unravel the broader implications of this family's dynamics in the context of African American heritage.

Now that we have outlined the basic plot of "Everyday Use," we will move on to a detailed analysis of the story's characters, beginning with Dee, Maggie, and Mama.

Character Analysis

In "Everyday Use," Alice Walker presents readers with a trio of distinct and memorable characters: Dee (Wangero), Maggie, and Mama. Each character brings a unique perspective to the story, contributing to the exploration of themes such as heritage, identity, and the significance of cultural artifacts.

Dee (Wangero): Dee is the elder daughter of Mama and the central character in the story. She returns to her family's home with a newfound sense of African heritage and a desire to claim objects that she believes represent her roots. Dee's transformation includes a change of name and a rejection of her family's traditional way of life. She values objects like the quilts as artifacts to be preserved and displayed. Dee's character symbolizes the tension between embracing one's heritage and appropriating it for personal gain.

Maggie: Maggie is Dee's younger sister and represents a contrasting perspective on heritage. She is characterized by her shyness and her simple, down-to-earth lifestyle. Maggie values the quilts not as art pieces but as practical items to be used and cherished for warmth. Her character embodies a connection to tradition and a deep understanding of the family's heritage, albeit in a less overtly intellectual manner.

Mama: Mama, whose real name is not revealed in the story, serves as the narrator and mediator between her two daughters. She represents a middle ground in the conflict between Dee's desire for heritage objects and Maggie's simpler way of life. Mama is the keeper of the family's heritage, passing down traditions and memories through everyday objects. Her character reflects the challenges of preserving heritage and navigating the changing values of her daughters.

Through the analysis of these characters, we gain insight into the different perspectives on heritage and identity that Alice Walker explores in "Everyday Use." Dee, Maggie, and Mama serve as vehicles for examining the complexities of familial relationships and the significance of cultural inheritance.

Now that we've introduced the characters, we will further explore their motivations, conflicts, and transformations as we delve deeper into the themes and symbols of "Everyday Use" in the following sections of this essay.

Themes and Symbols

"Everyday Use" by Alice Walker is a rich narrative that explores several profound themes and employs symbolism to convey its messages. The story's central themes include:

Heritage: One of the primary themes is the significance of heritage and how it is perceived and valued. The quilts, as well as other objects in the story, serve as symbols of the family's cultural inheritance. Dee's desire to preserve these items for their historical value clashes with Maggie's and Mama's understanding of heritage as a living tradition passed down through everyday use.

Identity: The story delves into the theme of identity, particularly how individuals define themselves in relation to their cultural roots. Dee's transformation and adoption of a new name represent her quest for a distinct identity based on her interpretation of African heritage. This contrasts with Maggie's more rooted and authentic identity, shaped by her everyday life and experiences.

Cultural Appropriation: "Everyday Use" addresses the issue of cultural appropriation, as seen in Dee's attempts to claim and reinterpret her family's cultural artifacts. The story raises questions about who has the right to define and represent a culture's heritage and whether this can lead to the erasure of authentic voices and traditions.

Conflict and Reconciliation: The conflict between Dee and her family reflects the broader theme of conflict and the potential for reconciliation. The story explores the tensions that arise within families when different values and perspectives clash. Ultimately, it suggests that reconciliation can be achieved when there is an understanding of the importance of preserving heritage in meaningful ways.

The symbolism in "Everyday Use" extends beyond the quilts to include objects like the churn, the benches, and the house itself. These symbols are woven into the narrative to convey deeper meanings and messages about the characters' relationships and their connections to their cultural heritage.

As we proceed in this analysis, we will explore how these themes and symbols are intricately intertwined in the story, driving the narrative and shaping the characters' decisions and transformations. Our aim is to uncover the layers of meaning within "Everyday Use" and appreciate its significance as a literary work that grapples with complex social and cultural issues.

Conflict and Resolution

At the heart of "Everyday Use" lies a central conflict that drives the narrative and serves as a focal point for exploring the story's themes. The conflict primarily revolves around the quilts, but it extends beyond material possessions to encompass differing perspectives on heritage and identity.

Dee's return home with the intention of claiming the quilts as artifacts to be preserved and displayed sets the stage for the conflict. She views them as historical treasures that should not be "wasted" on everyday use but should instead serve as a testament to her heritage. This perspective clashes with Mama and Maggie's understanding of heritage as a living, tangible connection to their ancestors.

The resolution of the conflict occurs when Mama makes a decisive choice regarding the quilts. In a moment of realization, Mama chooses to give the quilts to Maggie, the daughter who values them not as art pieces, but as objects that embody the family's history and love. This resolution signifies a turning point in the story, highlighting the importance of preserving heritage in a way that is meaningful and authentic.

It is in this resolution that we witness the transformation of Mama and Maggie. Mama, who initially seemed somewhat passive, takes agency in preserving her family's heritage in a way that aligns with their values. Maggie, too, undergoes a transformation as she inherits the quilts and the responsibility of carrying on the family's traditions.

The conflict's resolution in "Everyday Use" reinforces the themes of heritage, identity, and the importance of understanding the true essence of cultural artifacts. It suggests that preserving heritage should not be a matter of external display but a reflection of one's genuine connection to one's roots.

As we continue to explore the story, we will delve into the broader cultural and historical context that informs the characters' perspectives and choices. We will also examine the writing style and literary devices used by Alice Walker to convey the story's messages effectively.

Cultural and Historical Context

To fully appreciate the nuances of "Everyday Use," it's essential to place the story within its cultural and historical context. The narrative is deeply rooted in the African American experience during a period of significant social change and cultural reevaluation in the United States.

The story is set in the rural South, where the legacy of slavery and segregation casts a long shadow. During the early 1970s, when the story was written, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement were shaping the national discourse on race and identity. These movements advocated for racial equality, self-determination, and cultural pride among African Americans.

Alice Walker's writing reflects her engagement with these social and cultural movements. "Everyday Use" addresses the importance of preserving African American cultural heritage in the face of historical oppression and the erasure of traditions. The quilts, churn, benches, and other objects in the story serve as symbols of this cultural heritage, connecting the characters to their ancestors and their roots.

The tension between Dee's desire to appropriate her family's heritage for her own purposes and Maggie's and Mama's more grounded connection to it mirrors broader debates about cultural identity and authenticity during this period. African Americans were grappling with questions of how to assert their cultural pride and define their identities in a society that had long marginalized them.

By examining the cultural and historical context of "Everyday Use," we gain a deeper understanding of the characters' motivations and the significance of the objects at the center of the story. The narrative serves as a reflection of the broader conversations about heritage and identity taking place within African American communities during the 1970s.

In the next section of this essay, we will explore the writing style and literary devices employed by Alice Walker to convey her messages effectively in "Everyday Use."

Writing Style and Literary Devices

Alice Walker's writing style in "Everyday Use" is characterized by its authenticity and ability to capture the voices and experiences of her characters. One notable aspect of the story's style is its use of first-person narration. Mama, the story's narrator, provides readers with direct insight into her thoughts, emotions, and observations.

The use of dialect and colloquial language further enhances the authenticity of the narrative. It allows readers to connect more deeply with the characters and their rural Southern setting. Walker's decision to employ this writing style immerses the audience in the lived experiences of the characters, making the story's themes more relatable and immediate.

The story also makes effective use of symbolism to convey its messages. The quilts, for example, serve as a powerful symbol of the family's heritage and the conflict between preserving that heritage and appropriating it. Other objects, such as the churn and the benches, also carry symbolic weight, representing the daily rituals and traditions that connect the characters to their past.

Throughout "Everyday Use," readers can find instances of foreshadowing, which build anticipation and contribute to the story's tension. Walker employs this literary device to hint at the forthcoming conflict over the quilts and to create a sense of dramatic irony that keeps readers engaged.

Metaphors and similes are used sparingly but effectively in the story. They provide vivid descriptions and comparisons that enrich the narrative. For example, Mama describes Dee's smile as "sweet as June" and likens the fire in Maggie's eyes to "the flames of an open stove."

Alice Walker's literary craftsmanship in "Everyday Use" allows readers to not only engage with the story's characters but also to explore its deeper layers of meaning. The writing style and literary devices employed contribute to the story's impact as a reflection of African American heritage and the complexities of familial relationships.

As we approach the conclusion of this essay, we will reflect on the critical reception and various interpretations of "Everyday Use," highlighting its enduring relevance in discussions of heritage and identity.

Critical Reception and Interpretations

"Everyday Use" by Alice Walker has garnered both critical acclaim and diverse interpretations since its publication in 1973. The story's exploration of heritage, identity, and cultural appropriation has made it a significant work in African American literature and beyond.

Upon its release, "Everyday Use" received praise for its authentic portrayal of African American life and the tensions within families striving to maintain their cultural heritage. Critics applauded Walker's ability to capture the complexities of the characters and their relationships, as well as the story's resonance with broader cultural and historical themes.

One common interpretation of the story revolves around the character of Dee and her appropriation of African heritage. Critics and scholars have explored the idea that Dee represents a generation seeking to reconnect with their African roots but doing so in a way that may lack authenticity or a true understanding of their heritage. This interpretation highlights the tension between preservation and appropriation.

Another interpretation focuses on Mama's character and her transformation throughout the story. Some analyses suggest that Mama's decision to give the quilts to Maggie signifies a realization of the true meaning of heritage and the importance of preserving it in ways that honor one's ancestors and traditions.

Additionally, "Everyday Use" has been examined through feminist and womanist lenses, highlighting the roles of women in preserving cultural heritage and the empowerment of characters like Maggie, who may not conform to conventional expectations but possess a deep connection to their roots.

The story's lasting relevance is evident in its inclusion in educational curricula and its continued exploration in academic and literary circles. It remains a topic of discussion in classrooms and critical essays, contributing to ongoing conversations about heritage, identity, and cultural authenticity.

In conclusion, "Everyday Use" has left an indelible mark in literature and continues to provoke thoughtful discussions and interpretations. Its examination of heritage, identity, and the complexities of family relationships resonates with readers from diverse backgrounds, reaffirming its status as a timeless work in American literature.


In the exploration of Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," we have journeyed through a narrative that encapsulates the complexities of heritage, identity, and familial bonds. This poignant story, set against the backdrop of the rural South during a transformative period in American history, invites readers to reflect on the significance of cultural heritage and the ways in which it is perceived and preserved.

We began our journey by introducing the story and its central themes, which include the importance of heritage, the evolving nature of identity, the pitfalls of cultural appropriation, and the potential for reconciliation in the face of conflict. We then delved into the characters of Dee (Wangero), Maggie, and Mama, each representing distinct perspectives on these themes.

Throughout our analysis, we explored the symbolism of objects such as the quilts, the churn, and the benches, which serve as powerful representations of the characters' connections to their past and their differing views on heritage. We examined how the story's resolution emphasizes the value of preserving heritage in meaningful and authentic ways.

By considering the cultural and historical context in which "Everyday Use" is situated, we gained a deeper understanding of the characters' motivations and the broader debates about heritage and identity within African American communities during the 1970s.

We also explored Alice Walker's unique writing style, characterized by first-person narration, dialect, and the use of literary devices like symbolism, foreshadowing, metaphors, and similes. These elements contribute to the story's authenticity and its ability to convey profound messages.

Our journey culminated in an examination of the critical reception and diverse interpretations of "Everyday Use." The story's resonance in discussions of cultural heritage, identity, and family dynamics underscores its enduring relevance in literature and academia.

In closing, "Everyday Use" stands as a testament to Alice Walker's skill as a storyteller and her commitment to exploring the intricacies of African American life and the preservation of cultural heritage. It serves as an enduring work that continues to captivate readers, provoke thoughtful conversations, and inspire fresh perspectives on these timeless themes.

Resources for Essay on "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker

Updated: Dec 18, 2023
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Unpacking Heritage and Identity in 'Everyday Use' by Alice Walker. (2023, Dec 18). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/unpacking-heritage-and-identity-in-everyday-use-by-alice-walker-essay

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