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The short story ‘‘Everyday Use’’ by Alice Walker describes the encounter of the educated and independent daughter Dee, her mother and the younger sister Maggie, who live a simple and traditional life together.
A conflict between the different understandings of culture and traditions arises, when Dee wants to claim two old quilts which her mother had previously promised to Maggie.
This short summary is meant to briefly display the facts and introduce the reader to the subject dealt with in this short story. The story’s central theme concerns the way different individuals understand their culture in relation to their present life.
The following analyses of this text will use Walker’s personal situation with regard to her heritage to show how critical circumstances and outer influences affected her writing of this story. It will also go into further detail about the historical background that goes hand in hand with Walker’s experiences.
2. FACTS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Poet, novelist and womanist are only some of the names Alice Walker has been given for her written works. Born the eighth child of a Southern sharecropper and a part-time maid, Walker has climbed the ladder of success to become one of America’s most gifted and influential writers.
Her works include short stories, essays and novels that are always clearly centered around the struggles and hardships of black women.
Walker uses the writing as her medium to spread her word and to process experiences of her own family and childhood. Her writing exposes the complexi- ties of the ordinary by presenting it within a context of ambiguity and change; she peels back the hard- layered cover of African American women’s lives to reveal the naked truth and hope, as she explains:
‘‘The black woman is one of America’s greatest heroes (…). She has been oppressed beyond recognition.’’1
Alice Walker is one of the first African American women to explore the paralyzing effects of being a woman in a world that virtually ignores issues as black-on-black oppression.
In 1983, her novel ‘‘The Color Purple’’ received the Pulitzer Prize and elevated her to world -wide fame. Her efforts, however, have not always received favorable reception among blacks. She has aquired notoriety for her taboo-breaking and morally challenging depictions of African American passions and oppressions.
2.1 Paralleles between Walker’s life and ‘‘Everyday Use’’
Born in the rural South, in the state of Georgia, as the youngest child, Alice Walker was taught from an early age on, that being African American can have its rough times.
One of the story’s main characters, Maggie, is a direct relation to the beginning of Walker’s life. She appears to be a young woman, even though her exact age is not given. Many years ago, Maggie was hurt in a house fire, after which she walked ‘‘(…) chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, (…).’’2 and was very ashamed of her looks. In relation, Alice’s older brother shot her in the eye while playing ‘‘Cowboy and Indian’’ with her. She remained blinded on one eye and had the feeling of being unpleasant to look at, which caused her to seclude herself from other children in her age.
In addition, the character of Dee seems to be a detailed describtion of Walker’s sister Molly3.
As well as Dee, she stems from a poor hard-working family and was given the chance to attend college4. Despite her education, she shunned her family for their traditional, black lifestyle and envisioned to become part of a prosperous, white society by denying her original heritage.
3. STYLE AND TECHNIQUE
Walker conveys her message through the voice of a flexible, observant first- person narrator. It is the mother's point of view which allows the reader to understand both Dee’s and Maggie's characters and positions. The mother’s narrating perspective provides objectivity from which she can overlook all situations. She reports in an independent, unbiased tone that doesn’t frankly show favoritism to any one of her daughters and gives the reader a chance to make up his own opinion about one’s understanding of culture and heritage.
4. THE CULTURAL CONFLICT IN ‘‘EVERYDAY USE’’
4.1 The main characters
The differences of the sisters’ understandings of culture come out in Walker’s contrasting of the personalities of Dee and her mother.
Dee can be seen to represent a materialistic and modern way of life where culture and heritage are to be valued only for their trendyness. The mother, on the other hand, leads a content, simple, and practical life in which the heritage is appreciated both for its usefulness as well as its personal significance.
These two extremes are opposed by the character of the younger daughter Maggie.
Raised by her mother in a traditional and simple manner, her personality and habits were shaped correlatively from an early age on. In the story, her character serves the purpose of elucidating the intensely distinct standpoints towards culture between her and her sister.
Clues about the role distributions are found in Walker's physical descriptions of the characters.
The mother describes herself as ‘‘(...) a large, big-boned woman with rough manworking hands.’’5 with fat that can keep her ‘‘(...) hot in zero weather.’’6 She proudly adds how she ‘‘(...) can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man.’’4. None of these things are particularly glamorous, but it is Walker's intention to show that through her heritage the mother possesses skills of her predecessors. These abilities make her tough and independent.
Maggie, the daughter at home, is shy and scared and remains by her mother's side as an obedient shadow. As well as her mother, she is not physically attractive or stylish. Her body is covered with burn scars and her walking is described as that o f ‘‘(...) a lame animal, perhaps a dog (...).’’7. However, by helping her mother in their daily life, she becomes accustomed to using old hand- made tools from her ancestors and therewith learns their history.
This is exemplified by Maggie’s knowledge of the dasher’s origin - she instantly knows where it comes from, ‘‘Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash. His name was Henry, but they called him Stash.’’8 - this is a knowledge which Dee does not possess.
Maggie and her mother are the ones who truly appreciate the treasures that carry the memories and traditions of earlier family members. They symbolize the connection betwe en generations and the heritage that passed between them in their frugal but contented life.
Dee, on the other hand, is described as being light skinned, with nice hair and a full figure. She gives the impression that she ‘‘(...) has held life always held in the palm of one hand, (...).’’9. Being the only person in the family who ever attended college she still is narrow-minded and materialistic. Her conception of culture lies in tangible things that depict her heritage, i.e. the dasher of ‘‘beautiful yellow wood’’10, which shows finger imprints of former users.
The day she finally returns home to visit her family, her first thing to do is taking Polaroid pictures of her family and their house. On every shot she makes sure the house is visible in the background11, which confirms the assumption that Dee fails to understand that material things do not carry the real cultural heritage.
4.2 The Black Power Movement
‘‘Black Power’’ was a political movement expressing a new racial consciousness among blacks in the United States in the late 1960s. It represented both a conclusion to the decade's civil rights movement and a reaction against the racism that persisted despite the efforts of black activists. A big wave, under the motto ‘‘Black is beautiful’’, flooded the country. Black Americans started to seek their cultural roots in Africa, without knowing too much about the continent and its history.
Alice Walker, on the other hand, had lived in Africa long enough to see the difference between the reality there and the Africa praised by the black population. She criticizes the people’s shallow knowledge of Africa in subtle terms by incorporating this conflict into ‘‘Everyday Use’’.
In the story, Dee is portrayed as the perfect example of the black student seeking for an African backround. She has always had a strong personality12, but nevertheless, she is very pliable when it comes to new trends, in this case the ‘‘Black Power Movement’’.
Once she discovers the trend of glorifying African culture roots, she quickly adapts to it and attempts to milk her own heritage for all its artistic and monetary worth.
This stands in conflict with her former disposition for she had despised her black roots when she was still living together with her family as she blamed her heritage for their poor lifestyle and living conditions13.
Dee’s intentions become obvious in her greeting of the family. She makes use of the African ‘‘Wa-su-zo-Tean-o’’14, which is a phrase of the Buganda people of Uganda and means ‘‘Good morning’’.
By this, she probably tries to hint criticism towards her mother’s way of practicing culture, as she is so wrapped up in living her traditions that she does not appreciate and acknowledge her African roots.
4.2.1 Dee’s change of name
Another significant example of Dee’s understanding, provides the matter of her name change to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Evidently, she has chosen her new name to express solidarity with her African ancestors and to reject the oppression implied by the taking on of American names by black slaves15. This again clarifies her attitude towards culture and heritage, as she wants to deny her history by taking on a different name.
She disregards the importance of the fact that she was named after her aunt Dicie16, and that the name Dee is symbolic of family unity as the mother ‘‘probably could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches.’’17. The aspect of the discarding one’s name for the sake of a trend is a matter of personal importance to Walker.
She continually criticized the tendency among African Americans of trading in their names for African names that do neither embody any personal history nor relate to persons they know.18
‘‘The magic of naming is that people often become what they are called.’’19
The criticism becomes obvious when looking at Dee’s new African identity. The first name Wangero, for example, could resemble a Kik uyu name, a small people in Kenya. It exists as Wanjiru which is one of their nine clan names.
Leewanika, the middle name, resembles Lewanika, who was a Zambian king in Barotseland from 1842 to 1916. Walker might have chosen that name for Dee, who ‘‘knew what style was’’20, on purpose ‘‘to let her assume a royal touch as an African princess.’’21.
Seen in the context of this story, Walker probably meant to emphasize Dee’s superficial interest in her heritage by having her take on a mixture of names from different ethnic groups.
4.3 The tradition of quilting
Quilting is an old tradition still being practiced today. It is the stitching together of hundreds of tiny pieces of fabric from clothes of deceased family members in certain patterns. They are supposed to preserve the history and the memory of the ancesto rs as quilts are not only to be seen as blankets but comprise the story of a family over many generations.
For Alice Walker, quilts are extremely important and appear in several of her works, including ‘‘The Color Purple’’. Her deep proudness of her cultural inheritances is especially shown in her embodiment of the mother’s position in ‘‘Everyday Use’’.
The quilts are the focal point in the discussion between Dee and her mother through which they become symbolic of the story’s theme. As they have been worked on by two generations, they contain:
‘‘(…) scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War.’’22
When Dee then wants to claim the quilts, her attitude conflicts with her mother’s perception of the family heirlooms. The mother sees their practicality and usefulness23 ; every piece of fabric is a vivid memory of her ancestors. This also explains her reluctance to give the quilts to Dee as she had rejected them earlier because ‘‘(...) they were old- fashioned, out of style.’’24.
The mother finally recognizes that Dee never wanted the quilts for the love of the family, that she has not understood the concept of tradition.25 With her, the quilts would rot in disuse whereas ‘‘Maggie knows how to quilt.’’26 and has been raised to know that she can put them to everyday use and still continue her heritage by patching them with new scraps27.
In the short story ‘‘Everyday Use’’, Alice Walker depicts in her typical writing style the life and struggles of black women.
Influenced by the political activism at that time, these women are searching for individual identities. In my opinion, Walker wants to convey that culture and heritage are neither name changes nor different hair; they are not something to be adopted for the sake of a trend but to be taught from one generation to the next.
This concept of tradition is exemplified through the quilts, the common symbol for heritage, because
‘‘Black women can survive only by recovering the rich heritage of their ancestors.’’28
In the story, both the mother and Maggie know how to quilt and are aware that quilts, in order to be kept alive, must be put to ‘‘Everyday Use’’.
I assure to have only used the following sources:
1. Crawford, Vicky L., Rouse, Jaqueline A., Woods, Barbara, Women in the Civil Rights Movement (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993)
2. Kanneh, Kadiatu, African Identities (London and New York: Routledge, 1998)
3. Walker, Alice, Die Farbe Lila (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1984)
4. Walker, Alice, The Color Purple (London: The Women’s Press, 1983)
5. F. A. Brockhaus, Brockhaus Kompaktwissen von A bis Z, Bd. 1. A-Dral (Wiesbaden, 1983)
11. http://americanhistory.miningco.com/homework/americanhistory/library/weekly/ aa020998.htm
12. http://americanhistory.about.com/homework/americanhistory/library/weekly/blal ice2.htm
2 (ll. 61-ll. 62)
4 (ll. 76-ll. 78)
5 (ll. 33-ll. 34)
4 (ll. 35-ll. 36)
7 (ll. 35-ll. 36)
8 (ll. 238 -ll. 240)
9 (ll. 12-ll. 13)
10 (l. 250)
11 (ll. 160-ll. 161)
12 (ll. 87-ll. 88)
13 (ll. 70-ll. 75)
14 (l. 147)
15 (ll. 175-ll. 176)
16 (l. 178)
17 (ll. 185-ll. 186)
19 By Alice Walker in ‘‘Anything we love can be saved’’, 1997 from http://www.bcsd.org/BHS/english/mag97/papers/walker.htm
20 (l. 91)
22 (ll. 258-ll. 262)
23 (ll. 267-272)
24 (ll. 290-ll. 291)
25 (l. 300)
26 (l. 296)
27 (l. 295)
28 By Alice Walker in ‘‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’’, 1974 from Kadiatu Kanneh’s ‘‘African identities’’