In the short story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, she introduces a rural black family who struggle with the meaning of heritage. To Mama, the narrator, and Maggie, the youngest daughter, heritage is whom they are, where they come from, and the everyday use of the things around them. Dee, the oldest daughter, has rejected her heritage from the beginning. She wants the better things in life and goes off to college to find them. On her return, she seems to have a newfound sense of heritage. Through a confrontation about family quilts, Mama realizes that Dee’s view of heritage is that of artistic and aesthetic value: not the everyday use of the objects that hold significant meaning in Mama and Maggie’s lives.
Walker portrays one meaning of heritage in her descriptions of Mama and Maggie. Mama says she is a big boned woman with man-working hands. She wears flannel nightgowns, overalls, and has “fat to keep me [Mama] warm in zero weather” (Walker 655). She can also kill and clean a hog as well as any man. Mama is even proud of the fact that she sweeps the dirt yard so clean that is like an “extended living room” (654). Likewise, Maggie is not a beautiful girl. She has burn scars on her arm and legs and does everything she can to hide them. She is uneducated, as is Mama, and shuffles her feet like a “lame animal” (655). Maggie is affected greatly as the first house burns to the ground.
Mama states “her [Maggie] eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames”¦” (655). Maggie understands the connection to her heritage is burning with the house. Maggie knows how to quilt because Grandma Dee and Big Dee taught her, as they have taught Mama. Through these descriptions, Walker gives a sense of poverty, but also shows that the lessons taught to Mama and Maggie by their ancestors are what keep them alive. They can feed themselves, cloth themselves, and are self-sufficient, even if they do not have money. Mama and Maggie are proud of where they come from and the fact that they are keeping the traditions alive through their everyday lives.
Dee, on the other hand, has rejected her heritage from the beginning. Dee always wants nice things, remarks Mama. She wants black shoe for a green outfit and a yellow dress to wear to her graduation: even though these things are hard for the family to come by. When the first house burns to the ground, Dee just stands by the tree with a look of “concentration on her face” (655). Dee feels no connection to the house as part of her heritage and is glad to watch it burn. Dee also rejects her heritage by rejecting who her mother is.
Mama explains that Dee wants a mother who is a hundred pounds lighter and glamorous. Dee does not appreciate the knowledge of her past that is living within and through her mother. At the first chance Dee gets, she runs off to college to distance her self from her family and the poor life she is leading. Ironically, the money to send Dee to college is raised through one of the oldest traditions, her mother’s church. Dee does not realize the significance of this act as part of her heritage, nor does she care. Dee has finally accomplished her goal, getting away from the family and the traditions she despises.
Upon Dee’s return home, she seems to have a newfound sense of heritage. She takes pictures of Mama, Maggie, the house, and a cow that wanders by. The house that she despises has now become a focal point to her. At dinner, Dee is excited about the food Mama prepares and Mama comments, “everything delights her” (658). Dee is intensely interested in the benches her father has built and the origins of an old dasher and turn top. It is Maggie who tells Dee the origins of the items by commenting the “Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash…they called him Stash” (658). Dee now seems to embrace the heritage she so quickly distances herself from in the beginning. She gives a sense of appreciation for the things she once found to be vile and an appreciation for her mother and sister.
Even though Dee is interested in her heritage, Mama realizes that Dee is still distancing herself from the family and the true meaning of her heritage. When Dee first returns home, she informs Mama and Maggie that she has changed her name to Wangero because she could not stand “being named after the people who oppress her (657). Mama informs her that the name Dee can be traced back through the family tree to the Civil war and even before that. Dee dismisses this explanation. Through the changing of her name, Dee feels that she has connected with her African roots. However, she is truly disconnecting herself from the roots of her family. Dee’s interest in Mama’s everyday items of the dasher and turn top is purely atheistic. She tells Mama she will do artistic things with the item. All Dee can see in the items is the value they hold as art objects.
The final confrontation occurs when Dee goes to the foot of Mama’s bed and takes family quilts from the trunk. Mama tells Dee she has promised the quilts to Maggie and Dee flies into a rage. She tells Mama that Maggie does not understand the value of the quilts and that Maggie would be “backward” enough to put them to everyday use (659). Mama tells Dee she hopes Maggie will use the quilts because that is what they were made for. When Mama asks Dee what will she do with the quilts, Dee responds that she will hang them on the wall. By hanging the quilts on the wall, Dee is further distancing herself from her heritage: turning it into a piece of artwork. Mama has a revelation as Maggie walks into the room. She tells Mama Dee can have the quilts because she “can “˜member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (659).
Mama realizes that Maggie is the one that has a real meaning of their heritage. Maggie knows how to quilt because her ancestors taught her. Maggie knows the stories behind all of the things in the house that she and Mama put to everyday use. Maggie is the one that understand that heritage is the knowledge and memories that are inside her, not tangible objects. Mama rips the quilts from “Miss Wangero’s” hands and places them in Maggie’s lap (659). At this, Dee venomously tells her mother and Maggie that they do not understand their heritage. The irony is that it is Dee that does not understand her heritage. As she leaves, Dee places a large pair of sunglasses on her face that hide everything “above the tip of her nose and her chin” (660). Dee is once again hiding who she truly is behind a false faÃ§ade that she has created: a creation that springs from the rejecting and perverting of her true heritage.
Through Mama, Maggie, and Dee, Alice Walker gives a true definition of the word heritage. Heritage is what is inside Mama and Maggie, the memories and the skills they have inherited from their kindred. True heritage comes from the everyday use of the memories and skills that are passed down from generation to generation. Dee personifies what heritage is not. Heritage is not hung on a wall, admired for its beauty, and then forgotten. Heritage is a living entity to be built upon by future generations. Mama realizes this in the end and sees that Maggie is the future of their heritage.
In her short story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker takes up what is a recurrent theme in her work: the representation of the harmony as well as the conflicts and struggles within African-American culture. “Everyday Use” focuses on an encounter between members of the rural Johnson family. This encounter––which takes place when Dee (the only member of the family to receive a formal education) and her male companion return to visit Dee’s mother and younger sister Maggie––is essentially an encounter between two different interpretations of, or approaches to, African-American culture. Walker employs characterization and symbolism to highlight the difference between these interpretations and ultimately to uphold one of them, showing that culture and heritage are parts of daily life.
The opening of the story is largely involved in characterizing Mrs. Johnson, Dee’s mother and the story’s narrator. More specifically, Mrs. Johnson’s language points to a certain relationship between herself and her physical surroundings: she waits for Dee “in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy” (88). The emphasis on the physical characteristics of the yard, the pleasure in it manifested by the word “so,” points to the attachment that she and Maggie have to their home and to the everyday practice of their lives. The yard, in fact, is “not just a yard. It is like an extended living room” (71), confirming that it exists for her not only as an object of property, but also as the place of her life, as a sort of expression of herself. Her description of herself likewise shows a familiarity and comfort with her surroundings and with herself: she is “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (72)—in other words, she knows the reality of her body and accepts it, even finding comfort (both physical and psychological) in the way that her “fat keeps [her] hot in zero weather” (72). Mrs. Johnson is fundamentally at home with herself; she accepts who she is, and thus, Walker implies, where she stands in relation to her culture.
Mrs. Johnson’s daughter Maggie is described as rather unattractive and shy: the scars she bears on her body have likewise scarred her soul, and, as a result, she is retiring, even frightened. Mrs. Johnson admits, in a loving manner, that “like good looks and money, quickness passed her by” (73). She “stumbles” as she reads, but clearly Mrs. Johnson thinks of her as a sweet person, a daughter with whom she can sing songs at church. Most importantly, however, Maggie is, like her mother, at home in her traditions, and she honors the memory of her ancestors; for example, she is the daughter in the family who has learned how to quilt from her grandmother.
Dee, however, is virtually Maggie’s opposite. She is characterized by good looks, ambition, and education (Mrs. Johnson, we are told, collects money at her church so that Dee can attend school). Dee’s education has been extremely important in forging her character, but at the same time it has split her off from her family. Mamma says, “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice” (73). Dee, in other words, has moved towards other traditions that go against the traditions and heritage of her own family: she is on a quest to link herself to her African roots and has changed her name to WangeroLeewanikaKemanjo. In doing so, in attempting to recover her “ancient” roots, she has at the same time denied, or at least refused to accept, her more immediate heritage, the heritage that her mother and sister share.
The actions Walker’s characters take, as well as their physical attributes, are symbolic of their relation to their culture. Dee’s male companion, for example, has taken a Muslim name and now refuses to eat pork and collard greens, thus refusing to take part in the traditional African-American culture. Mrs. Johnson, meanwhile, has “man-working hands” and can “kill a hog as mercilessly as a man” (72); clearly this detail is meant to indicate a rough life, with great exposure to work. Symbolic meaning can also be found in Maggie’s skin: her scars are literally the inscriptions upon her body of the ruthless journey of life. Most obviously—and most importantly—the quilts that Mrs. Johnson has promised to give Maggie when she marries are highly symbolic, representing the Johnsons’ traditions and cultural heritage. These quilts were “pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee “(76), both figures in family history who, unlike the present Dee, took charge in teaching their culture and heritage to their offspring. The quilts themselves are made up of fragments of history, of scraps of dresses, shirts, and uniforms, each of which represents those people who forged the family’s culture, its heritage, and its values.
Most importantly, however, these fragments of the past are not simply representations in the sense of art objects; they are not removed from daily life. What is most crucial about these quilts—and what Dee does not understand—is that they are made up of daily life, from materials that were lived in. This, in essence, is the central point of “Everyday Use”: that the cultivation and maintenance of its heritage are necessary to each social group’s self-identification, but that also this process, in order to succeed, to be real, must be part of people’s use every day. After all, what is culture but what is home to us, just as Mrs. Johnson’s yard is home to her.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 8th ed. New York: Longman, 2002. 88-95.
—Juan R. Velazquez