eritage: New is Old – Analysis of “Everyday Use” by Alice WalkerAlice Walker’s “Everyday Use” portrays the divide between a seemingly traditional generation and a revolutionary generation of the time period this story was written in, which is evident through the interactions between members of the same family. When one daughter who is shaped by the ideals of the generational movement of the day and age she lives in visits her family in the American South with a foreign man, car, camera, and new name, her mother and younger sister are left in a confused state, somewhere in-between apprehension and veneration. Interestingly enough, the new life this daughter lives is merely based off of a difference in mindset with regards to one thing, her heritage. In “Everyday Use,” Walker points to how and why different characters view (and thus understand) their pasts differently, and as a result lead entirely different lives from others so close to them. Ultimately, through the various characteristics of the various characters, this story reflects how humans can reject one reality and form a sense of perceptual superiority, looking down on others who embrace a just as important, if not more important reality.
The story is narrated through the mother (referred to as “Mama”) of two sisters, Maggie and Dee. Maggie, the younger sister, is rather reserved and somewhat nervous. Growing up, Maggie was never in the spotlight as much as Dee was, and never attempted to make herself relevant in anything. She was never that type of girl. Dee, on the other hand, was always different from her sister and mother, and is described as “determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts” (457). In Maggie’s eyes, “her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that “no” is a word the world never learned to say to her” (455). In addition, Mama noted that Dee always wanted nice things, an example being her desires for a perfect high school graduation dress. Growing up, Mama explains, Dee never had many friends.
She also states that Dee hated their old house so much that she wanted to ask her to dance around the ashes when it burned down over a decade ago. This house fire is also what defined Maggie’s feelings towards Dee. Their mother predicts that “Maggie will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe” (455) when she sees Dee, as Dee doesn’t have any, perhaps asking herself “Why me?”Unlike Mama and Maggie, Dee went off to college in Augusta with the financial help of her family and the church (457). Ironically, this is likely the place where she developed and strengthened her beliefs about her own cultural identity, which somehow lead her to turn away from what got her to that point in her life. The new views she now had about the world were a result of both her personality and exposition to different types of people other than those she had been around in her hometown. The actions based off of these new ideas she developed as a young adult in college can often be referred to as a “fad” (in the most respectful way possible), as it is very much evidenced by the text that Dee identifies as a young rebel in the civil rights movement (to clarify: the civil rights movement, not a fad is a very real and meaningful movement that is still very relevant today). For example, changing one’s name to a meaningful, ethnic name was something young people apart of the movement did.
However, it is not to say that this fad is not rightfully justified. Prior to this time, people of certain cultures were almost forced to act and think a certain way. This was interpreted as a form of “self-hatred,” which is what it essentially was. This movement encouraged people to dig into their roots, and by that, analyze every part of their lives and have meaning behind them. However, in Dee’s case, this meant leaving everything she ever knew for her about two decades on this Earth and reforming it, in the name of cultural appropriation. While there is nothing wrong with her actions, they should not refute Maggie’s beliefs at the same time.By going against the “norm,” Dee did things differently than her family traditionally did.
This is why when her sister would go off to marry a local man named John Thomas, Dee would bring a foreign and more interesting man whose name Mama couldn’t even pronounce (calling him Hakim-a-barber for short) home. Hakim-a-barber greeted everyone with the Arabic greeting “Asalamalakim.” The ultimate way Dee distanced herself from her original life, however, is presented by her name change, from simply “Dee” to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!” (458) which she proudly exclaims. To give reason to why she did this Wangero (Dee) explained that Dee was dead, stating “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (458). Similar to the way Dee believed nothing in her path could stop her (455), Wangero believes she can just change her name, just like that, as if it previously did not have any place in her life.
There are some things, however that no matter how much one can say they don’t self identify as, are simply part of one. Wangero is at the point in her life where she believes she can shape her culture, when in reality, she cannot. For example, the pre-slavery culture of Africans in Africa was rightfully theirs, but how it was shaped makes it no less of theirs. When Hakim-a-barber said “he didn’t eat collards and pork was unclean,” (459), Wangero “went on through the chitlins and cornbread, the greens and everything else. She talked a blue streak over the sweet potatoes. Everything delighted her” (459). Did Wangero not have enough of eating this food when it was cultivated in the land her oppressors brought her too? Wangero had probably been eating this type of food her entire life, which this proves that there are still flaws in her perception of living by her rightful culture.
Essentially, everything is done to an extent, and this specific detail is yet another way Walker aims to flaw Wangero’s rejection of an entire part of her heritage, picking and choosing what she wants to define her.The fact that Wangero’s actions can be considered a “fad” is symbolic of her views of her own heritage as she wants to “hang it up” (as she wants to do with old quilts made by her family members) rather than putting it to use. Hanging something up can only do so much, as you simply walk by the object every day, and eventually will forget it as a meaningful object rather than something you use and are actively reminded of its significance. For example, when Wangero shouted to her mother ” ‘Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she said. ‘She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use’ ” (460). Everyday use.
Isn’t that what quilts are for? The contrast of using one’s culture to put on a pedestal to see as history is different than putting it to “everyday use,” not so coincidentally the name of this story. Evidenced by the such simple yet important and symbolic objects in the story, quilts, the separation of the old way of thinking and the new way of thinking (difference between Dee and Maggie & Mama) is shown through the interactions and tone of talking between the family members living in seemingly two different generations. That line shows the clear difference in mindset between the two generations over such a simple object: quilts. In the heat of an argument over these quilts, a likely defining point of the story is evidenced in a dialogue between Dee, her mother, and Maggie.
” ‘You just don’t understand,’ she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.’What don’t I understand?’ I wanted to know.’Your heritage,’ she said. And then she turned to Maggie, kissed her, and said,’You ought to try to make something good of yourself, too, Maggie.
It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.’ ” (461)This characteristic of not explaining the reasons why she believes in her deeply valued views tells a great deal about her mindset, as it is portrayed that Wangero knows everything and leaves it at that, rather than explaining things to others. Indicating a generational gap, it is shown that what is backwards to one person is completely normal to another person, even in the case that they are of similar age.
In the story, Walker portrays Wangero as one who feels they entitled to everything in her former house. In the middle of dinner, for example, Wangero says “This churn top is what I need” (459), without paying mind to the fact that it may belong to Maggie. A soft spoken Maggie, on the other hand, lives through this heritage, and knows much about it. However, she is not as good of a speaker as Wangero is. Maggie’s frightened demeanor is evidenced during a conversation where Hakim-a-barber subtly mocks one thing Maggie said previously, as Mama narrates “‘Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash,’ said Maggie so low you almost couldn’t hear her” (459).
This way of saying significant things in an unconfident way is why Maggie feels like she lives in she shadow of her sister, as Wangero’s nonchalantness overrides her lack of structured thoughts sometimes. This is evidenced in the very next line, where Wangero responds to Maggie’s useful input, laughing and stating “Maggie’s brain is like an elephant’s” (459). Perhaps this did not mean much to Wangero, but statements like these could contribute to the way Maggie feels with regards to her relationship with her sister, as she is given an image that does not represent her.In “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker attempts to show that this self-constructed heritage that Wangero/Dee believes stems from a lack of uncertainty in terms of her own self-realization, and by pairing her character traits, past experiences, and her evidence to back up her claims, rejects an entire part of her that defines her, and her superior mindset masks her susceptibility to change reality to cope with it, while Maggie’s genuine usefulness is overlooked by her sister.———————————————————————————————————————“The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.” – Frank Lucas, American Gangster