The Function of Tradition in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker and "Yellow Woman" by Leslie Marmon Silko

Term Paper, 2000

14 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Definition of important and central terms

3. “Everyday Use“ by Alice Walker
3.1 Mrs. Johnson
3.2 Dee (Wangero)
3.3 Quiltmaking as a symbol of tradition

4. “Yellow Woman“ by Leslie Marmon Silko
4.1 Silva as a Trickster figure
4.2 Oral tradition in Indian American literature
4.3 The Yellow Woman story

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Tradition is a simple and abstract word, but it contains a vast amount of important connotations, among them culture, identity, knowledge, advice and emotions. I have chosen the field of African American tradition and Native American tradition to present different views on tradition and tradition awareness. To give a more detailed and concrete analysis I will use the short stories ”Everyday Use“ by Alice Walker and “Yellow Woman“ by Leslie Marmon Silko.

In “Everyday Use“ I will mainly point out what tradition means to the characters Dee, Maggie and Mrs. Johnson. With the help of the story, I will prove both the antagonistic relationship and the parallels between Dee on the one side and Mrs. Johnson and Maggie on the other. Then I will focus on the importance of the traditional quiltmaking and the conflicts it brings up among the family members.

The short story “Yellow Woman“ includes important aspects of the Native American culture such as the Trickster figure or the element of oral narration. So I will present the character Silva as a Trickster figure and describe the importance of oral tradition. Then I will continue with the protagonist’s inner conflicts concerning her identity. The last chapter concludes by comparing the attitudes of the shortstories‘ characters and gives perspectives.

2. Definition of important and central terms

To facilitate my work I will give some short explanations on continuously used terms.

‘Heritage‘ is one of them and is usually meant to describe something that comes or belongs to one by reason of birth. Francois LeBlanc said it is “what ever each one of us individually or collectively wish to preserve and pass on to the next generation. If we want to preserve something, then it is our heritage.“[1]

‘Tradition‘ can be part of one‘s heritage and is also an important keyword in my work. It is generally defined as the handing down of statements, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word or mouth or by practice. It can also be described as a long established or inherited way of thinking or acting.

‘Myth’ is referred to as a traditional or legendary story. It is also seen as any invented story, idea or concept. The American population equates it with lie, “moreover it implies ignorance or a malicious intent of defraud”[2].

3. “Everyday Use“ by Alice Walker

3.1 Mrs. Johnson

Mrs. Johnson, the protagonist of the short story “Everyday Use“, is the mother of Maggie and Dee. Right at the beginning of the story, the reader gets to know how meaningful everyday use is to her. She says: “It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room“(YW 2387). So the yard is not an additional object to round up the beauty and lifestyle but it is integrated into the everyday life. Furthermore she describes how pleasant it is to sit in the yard and feel “the breezes that never come inside the house“(EU 2387).

Mrs. Johnson is called and often referred to as ‘mama’ in the story. Mama bears connotations such as strength, a big girth and even leisure. It is a typical Southern American expression, mostly used by African American people. Mama describes herself as a “big boned woman with rough, man-working hands“(EU 2388). She mentions qualities that were useful and necessary to survive for her ancestors. She “can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man“ and “can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing“(EU 2388). So she is able to survive with the help of methods that were passed on by her family. She has the ability to actually use them and therefore be independent.

At the point when Dee wraps up the dasher Mrs. Johnson almost melancholically thinks of her family heritage. “I took it for a moment in my 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.”(EU 2392) The reader understands that her heart is set on it. She clearly identifies with her culture and sees it as something natural.

Mrs. Johnson is a strong and carefree person. When Dee desperately wants to have the quilts her grandmother made, Mrs. Johnson sides with her daughter Maggie: “I did something I never had done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggies lap”(YW 2393). Mrs. Johnson wants Maggie to have the quilts for everyday use and does not want Dee (Wangero) to take them with her. Mrs. Johnson displays a powerful character who appreciates her culture and fights for it.

3.2 Dee (Wangero)

Dee has from her childhood onwards an aversion to the traditional lifestyle of her family. It can be interpreted as an aversion to her ancestry and heritage. As the house burns down Dee had “a look of concentration on her face, as she watched the last dingy grey board of the house fall in toward the redhot brick chimney“(EU 2389). And Mrs. Johnson is on the verge of asking her: “Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes?“(EU 2389).

Through the conversation between Maggie and Mrs. Johnson the reader gets to know that Dee would always come and visit but would never bring friends. She is ashamed of her family and their way of living. She does not identify with her ancestry.

Dee is always busy with being different from her family. She went to Augusta school and used her knowledge to present her dominance. Walker uses expressive antagonisms: “she washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge“(EU 2389), and Walker goes on with words like “pressed“ and “shove“ to show Dee’s attitude. She is determined to gain knowledge and be different from her ancestors. She uses her reading ability like a weapon to show her family how well educated she is and how minor they are in their ignorance.

Although Dee is so concerned with accumulating knowledge, she is at the same time so blind towards her roots and heritage. Her name change from Dee to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo does she justify with the statement not being able to “bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress“(EU 2391) her. But Dee is named after her aunt Dicie who was named after her mother. Mrs. Johnson “could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches“(EU 2391) but Dee insists that her name descends from her oppressors, meaning the white people. Dee does not try to recognize her culture. She wants to have a trendy African name such as Wangero since the short story is set in the time of the Black movement. She has refused her real identity all her life. But as soon as it is seen as ‘trendy’ she wants it back. She is not able to achieve this because it changes into an identity that in some form does not differ much from the identity of a white person. She does not realize her roots and her connection to the family. Dee estimates on the wrong scale. The scale consists of money and displaying value, not of true bonds to her tradition.


[1] Le Blanc, Francois, 1993, “Is everything heritage?“ < pub_ is_everything_heritage.html

[2] Allen, Paula Gunn , The sacred Hoop. Recovering the feminine in American Indian traditions. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)102

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The Function of Tradition in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker and "Yellow Woman" by Leslie Marmon Silko
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
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Function, Tradition, Everyday, Alice, Walker, Yellow, Woman, Leslie, Marmon, Silko
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Sylvi Burkhardt (Author), 2000, The Function of Tradition in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker and "Yellow Woman" by Leslie Marmon Silko, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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