Alice Walker - Everyday Use

Seminar Paper, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: 1,0

Free online reading

Table of content

I Introduction

II About Alice Walker

III About “Everyday Use: for your grandmama”
III.1 Plot and Structure
III.2 Main Characters
III.2.1 Mrs. Johnson (Mama)
III.2.2 Maggie
III.2.3 Dee (Wangero)
III.3 Heritage
III.3.1 Dee’s Concept of Heritage
III.3.2 Mrs. Johnson and Maggie’s Concept of Heritage
III.3.3 The Quilt as an Image of Heritage

III.4 Narrative Situation

IV Conclusion

V Bibliography

I Introduction

The aim of this work is to introduce the reader to some vital ideas of Alice Walker’s writings, especially concerning the concept of black heritage, by interpreting her short story “Everyday Use”.

Before being led into the story’s interpretation the reader learns about Alice Walker’s notable biography. A short outline of the story’s plot and structure informs the reader about the main topics and prepares him to enter a deeper level of understanding. The main characters are presented and characterized before their different concepts of heritage are juxtaposed. Finally, the story’s key images, the quilts, are examined a little more deeply and the narrative situation is discussed.

The story is widely accepted as one of the best stories on the dilemma of black heritage and has a wide range of images. It gives birth to new aspects every time you have understood one of the numerous levels of meaning the story includes.

The main source for this work is Raimund Borgmeier’s very profound article on the short story[1]. It was not easy to find useful material for this work as the SLUB lacks the most recommended books for this story, but fortuitously the internet provides enough material to give this work a solid basis. Although the interpretation of some images or metaphors may be unsatisfactory, the main ideas are certainly explained adequately.

II About Alice Walker

Alice Walker was born on February 9th 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, as the eighth child of sharecropper parents. She grew up in the midst of violent racism and poverty which strongly influenced her later writings. After graduating from high school in 1961 she got a scholarship for Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she stayed for two years and wrote her first novel which was published in 1970 as The Third Life of Grange Copeland. While studying at Spelman, she participated in civil rights demonstrations and was even invited to Martin Luther King Jr.’s home because she had attended the Youth World Peace Festival in Helsinki, Finland. In 1963, Walker received a scholarship to the very prestigious Sarah Lawrence College in New York from which she graduated in 1965, having the BA. In 1964, after her junior year at Sarah Lawrence College, she won a scholarship as an exchange student to Uganda, and in the summer of the following year she also went to Kenya. This most probably helped her to understand the African culture. By senior year Alice Walker suffered from extreme depression, likely due to the fact that she got pregnant. In an effort to explain her suicidal feelings she wrote several volumes of poetry, but she was able to have a safe abortion with the help from a classmate. Throughout the 1960s she was active in the Civil Rights Movement and she even dropped her plans to spend her writing fellowship in Senegal because she said she “could never live happily in Africa – or anywhere else – until [she] could live freely in Mississippi” (Nina Baym ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2. 2239). Subsequently, she returned there in the summer of 1966, and in the same year she met the Jewish civil rights law student Mel Leventhal to whom she soon got married. Due to the black-and-white nature of their marriage and the fact that Leventhal was working for the NAACP[2], the couple had to deal with threats of violence. Walker got pregnant again but sadly lost the child. Their marriage should last for eleven years.

From 1968 to 1969, Alice was a teacher of black studies at Jackson State College and during the next year at Tougaloo College. During that time, her first collection of poems, Once, was published. Next she moved to a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute and in 1972 she accepted a teaching position at Wellesley College. Four years later she published her second novel, Meridian. It received such acclaim that Walker accepted a Guggenheim fellowship which allowed her to concentrate full-time on her writing. In 1977, she split up with Mel Leventhal on a personal level, but when she moved to San Francisco she fell in love with Robert Allen, the editor of Black Scholar. They settled in Mendocino where she finally began to write full-time. She produced countless works, some of which became very well-known. Of all her works one book has to be emphasized: in the spring of 1982, she became a celebrated writer with her famous book The Color Purple. For this book she received the greatest awards of her life – the American Book Award in 1982 and one year later the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It was even made into a successful movie by Stephen Spielberg. At that time she was lecturing in the Afro-American studies department in the University of California, Berkeley.

She gained several other awards, for example the National Book Award nomination for her second collection of poems Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems in 1973, and it was also in this year that she published In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, her first collection of short stories, one of which was Everyday Use. It won the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award in 1974 and was written over a period of five years, between 1967 and 1973, in the early phase of her writing career.

Today she is still actively teaching at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

III About “Everyday Use: for your grandmama”

The short story “Everyday Use”, from the collection In Love and Trouble published in 1973, was written during the heyday of the Black Power movement, when African Americans were trying to gain racial equality and called for self-determination and racial dignity. African American short stories of this period often dealt with problematic issues like separation, integration and redefinition of the African American past. Blacks were seeking their cultural roots in Africa, the slogan ‘Black is beautiful’ and the Afro hair style arose. Everyday Use is Alice Walker’s answer to the social discourse of that time, especially concerning the African American concept of heritage and identity (cf. Hoel, Helga. Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s «Everyday Use». 1).

III.1 Plot and Structure

“Everyday Use”, set around the year 1970, is about a poor, black mother (Mrs. Johnson) and her two daughters Dee and Maggie. Dee, going to a college in the north, visits her old home for a day and brings a friend, apparently her boyfriend, whom Mrs. Johnson calls Hakim-a-barber. The other daughter, Maggie, still lives with her mother. When Dee arrives, it becomes obvious that the differences have deepened. She has changed her name, adopted the ideas of the Black Power movement and criticises her family for the way they “still live” (Walker 2373). The culminating point of the story is the moment when Mrs. Johnson refuses to give Dee some old quilts because they were already meant to be a wedding present for Maggie. These quilts are the central image of the story and represent the concept of heritage[3]. By withholding the quilts from Dee, Mrs. Johnson decides that Maggie’s practical approach to heritage is better than Dee’s superficial, impersonal concept of heritage

Dee and Maggie are extremely contrastive characters, Dee being the successful, beautiful but arrogant type of woman, Maggie being simple-minded, disfigured and slow. They both are loved by Mrs. Johnson, but it is obvious that Dee has always played a special, independent role in the family because she is so different.

The structure of the story can be divided into two big parts: the first part is set before Dee’s arrival. It provides an inside view of the family’s past and introduces the characters and their relationships towards each other. The second part begins when Dee arrives and lasts till the end of the story.

The subdivision of the first part is complicated. The easiest and most convincing way seems to be a differentiation of four kinds of text that are mixed up and do not form paragraphs of their own. These four kinds would be 1) the description of Mrs. Johnson’s dream and 2-4) the description of each of the three women. There is only one problem: the very first paragraph could be seen as a paragraph of its own, but it can also be understood as closely connected to Mrs. Johnson’s dream: the narrator’s thoughts seem to lead to the question “For what reason does Dee come home after this long time?” – Mrs. Johnson’s first idea is the simplicity with which she and Maggie lead their lives or the way they are still able to take pleasure in something trivial like a “clean and wavy” yard (Walker 2367). But as Mrs. Johnson knows Dee very well, she also knows this is wrong as it simply does not correspond to Dee’s character. Now this train of thought is the common pattern which unites the first paragraph and the dream: Mrs. Johnson naturally sees the differences between Dee’s and her life and their moral concepts but she still longs for a reunion, unable to accept that the gap between them is already too big.

The second big part, beginning with Dee’s arrival, has a linear structure. It consists of four smaller parts. The first part ends with the first occurrence of Dee’s new name “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo”. The reader notices the change of the time of narration: up to that point the narrator uses the simple present, but after Dee has changed her name it suddenly changes to simple past. This passage can be seen as the first turning point of the story.

The second part is mainly about names. It deals with Dee’s new name and introduces Hakim-a-barber. It ends when the four of them sit down to eat. The next part includes the meal and Dee’s over-excitement about nearly everything, especially the dasher. The last part, finally, is about the quilts and Dee’s rejection.

III.2 Main Characters

III.2.1 Mrs. Johnson (Mama)

Mrs. Johnson introduces herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” (Walker 2368) She narrates the story from her point of view. Supposing that the story is set in 1970, she can be assumed to be about 50 years old. Although her education ends with the close-down of her school after the second grade in 1927 (cf. Walker 2369), although she cannot read and tells the reader that she lacks “a quick tongue” (Walker 2368), the author has given her articulate strength: she “can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man”, she “can work outside all day”, she “can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog” (Walker 2368) - she is good “at a man’s job” (Walker 2369). But apart from physical strength, she also shows mental toughness: she went to the people of her church and raised money to send her gifted daughter to a school in Augusta (cf. Walker 2369). And she can clearly distinguish between dream and reality. This contributes to the good-hearted down-to-earth image the reader gets of her.

But the way she presents herself to us shows that she is dissatisfied. She dreams of being “brought together” (Walker 2368) with Dee again, being given all the appreciation and thankfulness she has always been refused by her. The other possible reason for her to be dissatisfied is that the arrival of Dee reminds her of her weaknesses. She says for example that she could never look “a strange white man in the eye”, that she has “talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them.” (Walker 2368) Compared to that, Dee is much stronger: “She would always look anyone in the eye” (Walker 2368).

Mrs. Johnson’s first name is never mentioned. She is referred to by “Mama” and refers to herself only as “a Johnson” (Walker 2368) which may be a hint to the strong awareness of her family membership.

III.2.2 Maggie

Maggie is “a kind of Cinderella” (Borgmeier 62). She is the younger one of the two daughters and in every aspect the absolute counterpart of Dee. She has a “thin body” (Walker 2368), she “knows she is not bright” and bears severe scars on her arms and legs from a fire that burned the Johnsons’ earlier house to the ground (Walker 2368). Her lack of self-confidence both shows in the way she walks and the way she admires her elder sister “with a mixture of envy and awe” (Walker 2367). She seems to be quite uneducated although Mrs. Johnson tells us that “sometimes Maggie reads to [her]” (Walker 2369). But in contrast to Dee, Maggie loves her family and knows about its history and traditions.

III.2.3 Dee (Wangero)

Dee does not really fit in her family: She is bright, confident and beautiful and likes to produce herself – “[h]esitation [is] no part of her nature” (Walker 2368). She cares much about the outer appearance. “At 16 she had a style of her own and knew what style was” (Walker 2369). Since Dee left home to go to college in the North, she has changed her attitude towards the black tradition radically. She seemingly goes with the flow and is very much into the ideas of the Black Power movement. Despite her good education she is unable to see the value of her most important roots – her American roots.

The way Dee is presented makes the reader dislike her. She is arrogant and selfish and her “faultfinding power” (Walker 2369) hardly “ever let her have any friends” (Ibid.). But nevertheless “’no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her” (Walker 2367).

III.3 Heritage

The short story “Everyday Use” is mainly about “the use and misuse of the concept of [black] heritage” (qtd. in Borgmeier 61). The main characters Maggie and Mrs. Johnson share a common concept, but Dee’s idea about it is quite different.

III.3.1 Dee’s Concept of Heritage

To understand Dee’s attitude towards heritage, one has to understand Dee’s attitude towards her family first. Dee thinks of herself as being superior to her mother and her little sister. This gets palpable when she reproaches her mother with not understanding her heritage (cf. Walker 2373), but it can already be assumed when Mrs. Johnson remembers how Dee read to her and Maggie “without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice” (Walker 2369). She shoved them “away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand” (Ibid.). This attitude also gets clear when Mrs. Johnson has a short kind of discussion with Dee and her boyfriend about her new name. “Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my head” (Walker 2371). But this is not the only way Dee mistreats her family; she dislikes them and her origins. This includes her mother, who she would like to be “a hundred pounds lighter, [her] skin like an uncooked barley pancake” with hair that glistens in the light and a quick and witty tongue (Walker 2368). It includes the old house (cf. Walker 2369) and, following Mrs. Johnson’s judgment, probably also the new one which she doubtlessly want to “tear down” (Ibid.) as soon as her eyes get hold of it. And it includes “the way [Maggie] and Mama still live” (Walker 2373). It may be assumed that Dee’s attitude towards Maggie is also disturbed, because Mrs. Johnson “used to think she hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised money (…) to send her to Augusta to school” (Walker 2369). Her dislike roots so deep that she once wrote she was never going to bring any friends when she comes home (cf. Ibid.). This is the exact point where one finds the first serious flaw in Dee’s attitude: in the story she brings her friend Hakim-a-barber - against her intention not to bring anybody ever. As Dee cares a lot about style, one could assume that she regards her family as much “not [her] style” as Hakim-a-barber regards the “beef-cattle peoples down the road” (Walker 2371). But as it is “a new day” (Walker 2373) for the blacks now and as it becomes fashionable in the Black Power Movement to return to one’s roots, it suddenly becomes fashionable for her, too. From this perspective, coming home is simply a station on the road that she already stepped on when she changed her name to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo”. She merely wants to come home to collect some pieces of family history she can superficially identify with, take some photos as a kind of proof and leave.

Concerning her new name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, it has to be mentioned that against the uninformed reader’s first impression “it is [not] an ordinary African name” (Hoel 3). According to a citation in Helga Hoel’s essay, “[d]uring the 1960s Walker criticized the tendency among some African Americans to give up the names their parents gave them” (qtd. in Hoel 4), it is therefore reasonable to examine this name a little closer: “These […] names Dee bases her new-found identity on resemble Kikuyu names, but they are all misspelt”[4] (Ibid.), and the middle name, “Leewanika”, is not even Kikuyu.

Helga Hoel has a very interesting theory about it:

One of my Kikuyu informants told me he knew a lady from Malawi who was called Le(e)wanika. Later (in January 2000) I found out that there was a king Lewanika in Barotseland in Zambia from 1842-1916. Alice Walker may have wanted Dee “who knew what style was” […] to assume a royal touch as an African princess (Ibid.).

Consequently, Dee’s new identity lacks a basis. It is invalid and strengthens the superficial impression the reader gets of her. One could also consider the phrase “Wa-su-zo-Tean-o” with which Dee greets her mother and sister (cf. Walker 2370). Even if it is correct Bugandian for ‘Good Morning’ (cf. Hoel 4), it is very obvious that neither Mrs. Johnson nor Maggie can understand it – she probably only says it because she considers it stylish. The same goes for the quilts she wants to have. Her interest cannot be regarded as genuine because she has already rejected them previously. “Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style” (Walker 2372), but in the light of the “new day” (Walker 2373) these quilts are merely a chic symbol of heritage for Dee: they are entirely handmade and match the old churn and the dasher particularly well since they all represent “the simple fittings of the family” (Borgmeier 60).

It all adds up to a very shallow image of her concept of heritage. Dee seems to be riding on the latest wave of fashionable Africanism, confusing the real nature of her heritage with something which can be inherited like property. And while her original name, already carried by several generations of female ancestors, can be traced back beyond the Civil War (cf. Walker 2370), the new African name is not related to her personal history at all and dissociates her from her family and therefore from her true heritage. Now she neither belongs to her family anymore nor to her newly created identity. Not only was her search for a new heritage in vain, she also lost her real roots. This feeling is typical of the blacks of that time.

III.3.2 Mrs. Johnson and Maggie’s Concept of Heritage

Quite reversely to Dee, Mrs. Johnson and Maggie are deeply rooted in their family’s history. They share a common understanding of heritage which comes quite naturally and does not need any artificial definition or material proof. Maggie can tell the names of her ancestors by heart and knows about their history (cf. Walker 2371). The same goes for Mrs. Johnson, as she can trace the name Dee easily back “beyond the Civil War through the branches” (Walker 2370). But her practical approach to heritage gets even clearer when she takes the handle of the dasher in her hands:

You didn’t even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived. (Walker 2371)

For Maggie and her, heritage is nothing that lies in the past – on the contrary: they live it and they are able to connect it with things of their everyday life, like “Aunt Dee’s first husband” whose “name was Henry, but they all called him Stash” (Walker 2371): He whittled the dasher but Dee does not remember Stash anymore whereas Maggie does. Her concept of heritage is built upon personal memories and feelings which most importantly concerns the two quilts. These quilts carry a lot of family history but Dee simply regards them as a kind of art and wants to “hang them” (Walker 2373) on the wall. The moment when Maggie speaks and tells her mother that she “can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (Ibid.) is the second turning point in the story. This sentence even includes the very meaning of the whole story. To comprehend the way the sentence has to be interpreted, one has to be familiar with an extract from an interview Alice Walker once gave:

I really see that story as almost about one person, the old woman and two daughters being one person. The one who stays and sustains – this is the older woman – who has on the one hand a daughter who is the same way, who stays and abides and loves, plus the part of them – this autonomous person, the part of them that also wants to go out into the world to see change and be changed… (qtd. in Hoel 6)

According to this picture, this one person quarrels with herself, the two sides being represented by Dee and Maggie, and finally decides for Maggie. She “hugged Maggie […], dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hads and dumped them into Maggie’s lap” (Walker 2373). Crucial for the short but intense moment of deciding is Maggie’s attitude which she plainly expresses with the words cited above. This attitude is the way Alice Walker wants heritage to be seen: as a regenerative process, integrated into daily life.

III.3.3 The Quilt as an Image of Heritage

A patchwork quilt, laboriously and affectionately crafted from bits of worn overalls, shredded uniform, tattered petticoats, and outgrown dresses stands as a signal instance of a patterned wholeness in the African diaspora. (qtd. in Borgmeier 65)

The two quilts in “Everyday Use” carry the meaning of the whole idea of heritage. A quilt is the materialization of the idea of making something useful out of things that are useless or broken. It is a unifying symbol and in this case it unifies the different generations that are imprinted in it. The craft of quilt-making could even be understood as a kind of socio-historical institution: it does not only establish a unity among single elements but also across time and space for it does not matter where or when the person lives that contributes a piece of cloth to the quilt. The fact that the quilts in the story are exclusively made by hand makes the quiltmaker a unifier. Hence, Maggie is a unifier, too, as she “knows how to quilt” (Walker 2373) - and as the quilts stand for heritage itself, only Maggie and not Dee is able to produce new heritage. Therefore Dee is already excluded from the family’s heritage.

The part of the story when Dee and her mother dispute over the best usage of the quilts, either to put them to everyday use or to hang them on the wall, can be seen as a metaphor for the black people’s difficulties of how to cope with their past and integrate it into their future. They do not know if life is rather to be regarded as a continuation of traditions or as a “new day” (Walker 2373). Walker displays her personal opinion impressively by giving the story the title “Everyday Use” and dedicates this decision to the past generation, indirectly addressing the reader by giving the story the subtitle ‘for your grandmama’.

III.4 Narrative Situation

The story is told from the perspective of the first person narrator Mrs. Johnson. The time of narration is simple present until Dee’s new name is mentioned for the first time. The change of name goes along with a change of time, abruptly putting the story into the simple past. This transformation emphasizes the fact that for the narrator Dee is dead now, a part of the past, (cf. Walker 2370) and Wangero neither belongs to Mrs. Johnson nor to Mrs. Johnson’s time.

Alice Walker thoughtfully uses the narrative situation to create meaning. The story is told on a very personal level, introducing the reader to the very thoughts and dreams of the first person narrator. There are even some phrases that address the reader directly, for example on page 2368: “You’ve no doubt seen (…)” or “Have you ever seen a lame animal (…)”. That way the story gains the flair of a personal talk and creates sympathy for the narrator. As the author sees the story as “being about one person” (qtd. in Hoel 6), the strongest and most important part is doubtlessly represented by the narrator, Mrs. Johnson. She is the person that finally decides on the quilts and therefore on the story itself.

The moment Mrs. Johnson finally understands that Wangero’s concept of heritage is superficial and has to be rejected, is depicted as nearly epiphany-like. Mrs. Johnson describes it like this: “(…) something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout” (Walker 2373). This is no coincidence: Alice Walker uses this epiphany-picture to underline the importance of Mrs. Johnsons realization. And as the author seems to identify with the first person narrator, it seems to be of great importance to her, too. She wants the reader to understand the impact of Mrs. Johnson’s insight and therefore uses a religious image.

IV Conclusion

At this point the vital ideas of the story should be apparent to the reader. It should be clear that the story is mainly about the different possible approaches to black heritage, represented by the two very contrastive figures of Maggie and Dee/Wangero. The sisters are used to converse the use and misuse of the word ‘heritage’. In the end of the story it seems like finally life has learned to say “no” to Dee, making her flee and restoring the peace at home and in Maggie’s heart (cf. Walker 2373). When „Dee/Wangero sweeps off indignantly” (Walker 2373), “[f]or the mother and her younger daughter Everyday life has returned” (Borgmeier 61).

The story certainly includes many more images and would be worth a work much longer than this. Some parts of the text, like the quilts and their history in black America, can be examined more deeply, but it was not the aim of this work to completely deprive the story from all its secrets. The most important aspect of every piece of literature is that, in spite of all the content-related and interpretational aspects, it is still enjoyable and therefore worth reading. In my very personal opinion, that is what makes this short story a masterpiece of writing.

V Bibliography

Primary literature:

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Third Edition Shorter. Ed. Nina Baym et al. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989. 2367-2373.

Secondary literature:

Borgmeier, Raimund. „Alice Walker: Everyday Use (1973).“The African American Short Story 1970 to 1990: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz. Trier: WVT, 1993.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City: Anchor, 1984.

Hoel, Helga. Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”. 29.06.2005.

Whitsitt, Sam. In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker's "Everyday Use". 29.06.2005


[1] see bibliography.

[2] National Association for the Advancement of Colored People

[3] see III.3

[4] Dee’s new name is discussed very verbosely in ‘Personal Names and Heritage’ (see bibliography).

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Alice Walker - Everyday Use
Dresden Technical University
(Re-)Writing Traditions: Multiethnic American Short Stories
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The aim of this work is to introduce the reader to some vital ideas of Alice Walker's writings, especially concerning the concept of black heritage, by interpreting her short story 'Everyday Use'.
Alice, Walker, Everyday, Traditions, Multiethnic, American, Short, Stories
Quote paper
Johannes Timpe (Author), 2005, Alice Walker - Everyday Use, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • guest on 5/3/2007


    Alice Walker never taught at Yale University. She also did not miscarry. She and Mel Leventhal have one daughter, Rebecca Walker, also an author. Rebecca did attend Yale.

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