English 1300 Composition/Literature
Everyday Use is a short story written by Alice Walker. The story was originally published in the year 1973 and is under her collection of short stories titled “In love and Trouble”. The setting of the story is set in the 1960s where racism and segregation were at their peak and the African American community struggled to redefine their social, political, and cultural identity in a white supremacist American society. The tone used by the author in the story can be described as thoughtful and with slight amusement almost as if the author is engaged in introspection where she remembers some events from her past. The title of the story is interesting as it carries some irony with it. The title is a reflection of the interaction that Mama has with Dee and Maggie over the use of the quilts where the description of the use of the quilts by Dee breeds irony where Dee claims to preserve the quilts and respect her ancestors but as we come to see that her knowledge is only superficial and hence causes her mother to keep the quilts in circulation with the risk of wearing them out in Maggie’s care instead of letting Dee hang them on a wall.
The story is a complex amalgamation of different themes including race, heritage, family, and home. Altogether these themes give the story its substance and make it deliver its message immaculately. Race and racial identity serve as the crux of the story. Racial identity is almost like a cognitive framework that people use to collect information about themselves and other people around them furthermore, racial identities are heavily influenced by sociocultural components like family, peers, and socioeconomic and political factors (Jaret & Reitzes, 1999). In the story, Everyday Use, the character of Mama has a very staunch racial identity that remains throughout the story but counters to her identity her daughter Dee deviates from the status quo as she starts questioning her identity as a poverty-stricken African American girl. Since the setting of the story is in the 1960s where racism was peaking, Dee’s perception of self was distorted as it was nuanced with racist undertones. Dee’s skin is privileged treatment. Towards the end of the story when it progresses towards the final confrontation that Dee has with Maggie and Mama it is revealed that she has embraced her roots and taken up the name Wangero and when asked as to why she changed her name she replies with saying “she’s dead” “I could not bear it any longer, to be named after the people who oppressed me” (Walker, 1994), This serves to imply that Dee indeed is embracing her past while at the same time making Mama and Maggie still subservient to herself. Walker depicts a very complex representation of race in the story where the internalization of racism by Dee causes her to have hostility towards her history and in attempts to unlearn all of it she delves further into adopting classist attitudes regarding her mother and sister. This exemplifies that racial identity is crucial in constructing oneself and one’s political identity.
The second theme that is highlighted in the story is the essence of heritage and its interpretation for each character. Heritage entails everything that we inherited from our ancestors, for instance, history, language, material possessions, traditions, customs, legends, and values (Offen, 2016). In Everyday Use the meaning of heritage for Mama and Dee is very contrasting. Dee rejects her real heritage since in her opinion it is oppressive. In attempts, she gives herself a new name Wangero which for her is a depiction of her true African descent and heritage just like the clothes and jewelry that represent the culture of Africa. Her constructed heritage has no real depth and is meaningless and shallow because she has internalized this belief that her actual heritage is dead and is now a thing of the past. This can be exemplified by the conversation she has with her mother about the quilts as she exclaims that she will “hang them” which serves to imply that she views the quilts as an ornament, artifacts that are only suited for amusement and display rather than a living piece of an old tradition that carries the essence of the person who built them. Dee attempts to fetishize the quilts that were once a symbol of their impoverished familial state she insists Mama give her the quilts instead of Maggie since she believes that “Maggie will put them on the bed and in five years they will be in rags” (Walker, 1994). Furthermore, Dee views these quilts as a reminiscent of the past, objects that remind her of her departure for school, these are a depiction of her real heritage which to her now is dead. For Mama, heritage has a very different meaning. Taking the same example of the quilt, Mama believes that the quilts have more value than just being an object of display. She believes that they are infused with the essence, love, and values of the people who constructed them and that Dee’s intent to use them as a display object only shows her shallow reverence and it also substantiates the fact that she considers these quilts as something alien to her. Mama believes that the quilts should be in the possession of Maggie since she would realize their true worth put them to their intended use. This also highlights the irony discussed previously that even though Dee has a perception that Mama and Maggie are unaware of their heritage it is her that is unaware of her heritage and does not understand it.
Lastly, the theme of family is reflected in the relationship between the three women. Dee is depicted as the deviant child who disregards her racial heritage and identity but Mama loves her nonetheless. The story revolves around the family dynamics that await the return of an estranged child. Maggie has reverence towards her family tradition and is depicted as a mediator for instance in the scene where Dee insists on having the quilts and Mama’s exclamation that the quilts are reserved for Maggie, she refuses to accept the quilts by saying “she can have them, Mama” (Walker, 1994), this implies that she does not want another conflict to develop. Dee’s character is an inquisitive one because there is a symbolism of rejection depicted with the change in her identity from Dee to Wangero. This serves as a symbolism for the rejection of her family and its heritage. To Dee, the history written in books is what her heritage constitutes of but for Mama and Maggie, the people who lived the history and brought them up to have a priority. It is also important to notice that the family like any other is scarred with disagreements and contradictions which can serve as an allegory for any African American family existing in 1960s America. The concept of family and home to Dee is depicted as changing, something that always exists as a construct, to Dee family is a warehouse of belongings that she can pick and choose to fit her personality as it changes but for Mama and Maggie it brings a sense of coziness to it, to the family is what keeps the heritage alive and evolving as time goes by.
Jaret, C., & Reitzes, D. (1999). The Importance of Racial-Ethnic Identity and Social Setting for Blacks, Whites, and Multiracials. Sociological Perspectives, 42(4), 711-737. doi:10.2307/1389581
Offen, R. (2016). What is heritage? Australian Garden History, 27(3), 13-15. Retrieved June 28, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/24919057
Walker, A. (1994). Everyday use. Rutgers University Press.