The short story «Everyday Use» is central in Alice Walkers writing, particularly as it represents her response to the concept of heritage as expressed by the Black political movements of the 60s. «Everyday Use» is found in Alice Walkers collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble, which was published in 1973 (Walker 73). This was in the prime of the Black Power ideologies when «Black was beautiful», the Afro hairstyle was in fashion and Blacks were seeking their cultural roots in Africa, without knowing too much about the continent or the routes of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Williams 45).
I believe Dee has joined the movement of the Cultural Nationalism. The Cultural Nationalists emphasized the development of black art and culture to further black liberation, but were not militantly political, like, for example, the Black Panthers (Macedo 230). The ideas of the Cultural Nationalists often resulted in the vulgarization of black culture, exemplified in the wearing of robes, sandals, hairspray «natural» style, etc (Cultural Nationalism 1-2). The central theme of the story concerns the way which an individual understands their present life in relation to the traditions of their people and culture.
Dee tells her mother and Maggie that they do not understand their “heritage,” because they plan to put “priceless” heirloom quilts to “everyday use” (Walker 78). The story makes clear that Dee is equally confused about the nature of her inheritance both from her immediate family and from the larger black tradition. The matter of Dee’s name provides a good example of this confusion. Evidently, Dee has chosen her new name (”Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo”) to express solidarity with her African ancestors and to reject the oppression implied by the taking on of American names by black slaves.
To her mother, the name “Dee” is symbolic of family unity; after all, she can trace it back to the time of the Civil War. To the mother, these names are significant because they belong to particular beloved individuals (Joy in a Common Setting 1). Dee’s confusion about the meaning of her heritage also emerges in her attitude toward the quilts and other household items. While she now rejects the names of her immediate ancestors, she eagerly values their old handmade goods, such as the hand-carved benches made for the table when the family could not afford to buy chairs.
To Dee, artifacts such as the benches or the quilts are strictly aesthetic objects. It never occurs to her that they, too, are symbols of oppression. Her family made these things because they could not afford to buy them. Her admiration for them now seems to reflect a cultural trend toward valuing handmade objects, rather than any sincere interest in her “heritage. ” After all, when she was offered a quilt before she went away to college, she rejected it as “old-fashioned, out of style (Joy in a Common Setting 1).
Yet, a careful reading of the story will show that Dee is not the only one confused about the heritage of the black woman in the rural South. Although the mother and Maggie are skeptical of Dee, they recognize the limitations of their own lives. The mother has only a second-grade education and admits that she cannot imagine looking a strange white man in the eye. Maggie “knows she is not bright” and walks with a sidelong shuffle. Although their dispositions lead them to make the best of their lives, they admire Dee’s fierce pride even as they feel the force of her scorn (Walker 75).
As Dee is rejected of the quilts, she storms out of the house without a word. As I read this, the question of why Dee only comes in order to get some of the family heirlooms and bring back with her Hakim-a-barber. Not only does she want the quilts, but she also wants Grandma Dee’s butter dish and Uncle Buddy’s churn. Dee does not come to see the house, Mama, or Maggie. When Dee leaves, she does not say good-bye, but exits without a word. This is another insult to her family. By leaving without saying anything she is reinforcing all her action proved earlier in the story.
It is ironic when Dee states to her mama at the end of the story that, “You just don’t understand. ” “What don’t I understand” Mama asks. Dee responds, “Your heritage. ” Dee really thinks that she is more cultured than her family. She may be a rounder person, with more knowledge about different cultures and religions that she has learned in school, but she does not know as much of the family heritage as she thinks she does. Mama and Maggie, who are both less educated, know a great deal more about the family.
At first glance one may perceive Dee to be more cultured about her family heritage, but with deeper examination one can see how what she does goes against and insult of her family and culture. Dee follows the fashion, and right now it is in to celebrate the distant African roots. She has discarded her given name, Dee because as she says: “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me”(Walker 76). She fails to understand that the name, Dee, also goes back several generations on the American continent and therefore is more part of her heritage than an adopted African name which does not even make sense.
The grandmother (sic! ) in Everyday Use is amazed that Dee would give up her name for the name Wangero. For Dee was the name of her great-grandmother, a woman who had kept her family together against all odds. Wangero might have sounded authentically African but it had no relationship to a person she knew, nor to the personal history that sustained her. (p 14). In addition to the skillful use of point of view, “Everyday Use” is enriched by Alice Walker’s development of symbols. In particular, the contested quilts become symbolic of the story’s theme; in a sense, they represent the past of the women in the family.
Worked on by two generations, they contain bits of fabric from even earlier eras, including a scrap of a Civil War uniform worn by Great Grandpa Ezra. The debate over how the quilts should be treated–used or hung on the wall–summarizes the black woman’s dilemma about how to face the future Williams (40-45). Can her life be seen as continuous with that of her ancestors For Maggie, the answer is yes. Not only will she use the quilts, but also she will go on making more–she has learned the skill from Grandma Dee. For Dee, at least for the present, the answer is no.
She would frame the quilts and hang them on the wall, distancing them from her present life and aspirations; to put them to everyday use would be to admit her status as a member of her old-fashioned family. Dee, like many of us, spent her whole life building an intricate image to show to the world, constantly tweaking and fixing the details, until she fit into the role of the person she wanted to be. However, it was when she ventured from the true roots of her family that she began adopting a culture and set of beliefs that were never hers to begin with.
Still, it can be said that her intentions were generally good, as she was only trying to find her place to fit into the world. If she had only learned to take pride in the surroundings she was given, Dee could have found a greater amount of contentment within herself and her family (Macedo 85). Taken as a whole, while the story clearly endorses the commonsense perspective of Dee’s mother over Dee’s affectations, it does not disdain Dee’s struggle to move beyond the limited world of her youth. Clearly, however, she has not yet arrived at a stage of self-understanding. Her mother and sister are ahead of her in that respect.