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The Quilt in the Short Story “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker as a Symbol for the Appreciation of the Heritage of African- American People
This essay deals with the short story “Everyday Use“ by Alice Walker, which was first published in 1973 as a part of the short story collection In Love and Trouble. The short story contains many symbols, one of them a handmade quilt, which the two sisters Maggie and Dee (or “Wangero” as she calls herself) both want to have, but for different reasons. In this essay I am going to show that the handmade quilt as a family heritage both symbolises the appreciation of the history of the family and the history of the African-American people. I will also argue that the two sisters, who both want to have the quilt, represent different ideas of how to appreciate the family’s heritage and their origin: While Maggie sees the quilt as an everyday object and wants to maintain the traditions; Dee wants to keep it as a piece of art to depict it as an artefact of a past life, which is no longer reality for her and the African-American people.
Quilts and the art of quilting play an important role in the history of African- American people and African-American women in particular. Quilting was originally a European, feminine tradition which was adopted by African- American women already during the times of slavery (Baker & Pierce-Baker, 1985: 706/713). The art of quilt-making was handed down from one generation to another and making a quilt gave dignity to black women as they manufactured something of everyday use from remnants (ibid.: 713). Baker and Pierce-Baker (1985) even describe the passing on of the art of quilting as an “ancestral blessing [...] to descendants” (715). This is because quilts are the creative heritage of powerless black women and a way that they can be remembered, though being invisible to society (ibid.: 714). Thus, the quilt as a symbol in “Everyday Use” stands for the history and culture of African- American people. It also represents the dignity of black women, as a quilt is something creative to be proud of.
Moreover, the quilts described in the short story have a special value to the family as they are part of the family’s heritage. They are described as “pieced by Grandma Dee” and “Big Dee and [Mama] [...] hung them on the quilt frames [...] and quilted them” (2441). Both quilts have scraps in them that once belonged to clothes of family members that are already dead, like “pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts” and “scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago” (ibid.). As the quilts are part of the family’s heritage, and as well of the heritage of African-American people, both Maggie and Dee want to have them. Nevertheless, the sisters have different reasons to want them and they have different views on the quilts in regard of being part of their heritage.
Dee, or “Wangero” as she calls herself, has a college education and views the quilts as part of the heritage of African-American people. She describes them as “priceless” (2442) and emphasises that her grandma “did all this stitching by hand” (2441). What is remarkable is that she only talks about the value of the quilts after she has been denied to get them. Beforehand, she refers to them as “old quilts” (ibid.). This shows that there are two sides to Dee’s appreciation of her heritage. As Joe Sarnowski (2012) explains, Dee justifies personal gain of getting the quilts with her idealism of valuing her heritage (274).
On the one hand, Dee saying that the quilts are “priceless” (2442) shows that she idealises both her African-American and her African heritage (Sarnowski, 2012: 274). As she is part of the Black Pride movement, she shows a “strong appreciation for African heritage”, which can be seen in the way she dresses, her chosen name and her desire of the quilts (ibid.). For her, the quilt is a valuable object that needs to be admired, which can be seen in her concern of Maggie “put[ting] them on the bed” (ibid.) which would destroy them. Her idea of valuing the quilts is to “[h]ang them” (ibid.). This shows that she appreciates the quilts as a piece of art and something her family can be proud of. Susan Farrell argues that Dee “offers a view of heritage and a strategy for contemporary African-Americans to cope with an oppressive society that is, in some ways, more valid than that offered by Mama and Maggie” (qtd. in Sarnowski, 2012: 274-275).
On the other hand, Dee perceiving the quilt merely as art and an object that shows appreciation for her family’s past, shows that she attempts to distance herself from this tradition and also from her family. For her, quilting is something extraordinary that African-American women did, but it is nevertheless a relic of the past and not something that modern African- American women should do. This can be seen at the end of the short story, when Dee tells Maggie to “try to make something of [herjself’ and that it is “really a new day for us” (2442). Baker and Pierce-Baker (1985) point out that it is ironic that Dee chooses the quilts as an art object to distance herself from the community, as they are an example of community’s work (717).
Dee’s actions can even be seen as short-sighted. She claims to value her heritage and to show pride in her ancestor’s work, yet she described the quilts as “old-fashioned” (2442) before leaving for college. Helga Hoel (1999) even believes that Dee shall represent “a very shallow and superficial young woman” (38). Dee joined the very radical black nationalists, who were active in the 1960s and 1970s (Baker & Pierce-Baker, 1985: 716). This is why she sees objects, which are everyday objects to her mother and sister, as her heritage, which should only be used as stylish decoration (ibid.). Dee does not follow actual style of Afro-Americans but rather follows media on the newest trends (ibid.). Furthermore, she only sees a small part of the heritage of the African- American people and only values those aspects that fit to her idea of style and fashion (ibid.: 717).
Looking at her sister Maggie, it becomes clear that she is still part of what Dee describes as her heritage. Mama points out that “Maggie knows how to quilt” (2442) and that she would put the quilts to everyday use. This makes Maggie part of the tradition of quilting. Maggie shows not only superficial appreciation of the quilts and her heritage, but she learnt how to quilt herself and is part of the domestic black women’s community (Sarnowski, 2012: 279). She does not need the quilt as an object to value her heritage, but is part of the traditions herself as she is able to quilt (ibid.: 280).
Still, she does not have a sense for the Black Pride movement and how this movement gives a voice to the values that she has (ibid.: 285). Maggie knows, as well as her sister, that the quilts are special which is shown by Maggies reaction to her sister claiming them. Mama “heard something fall in the kitchen, and [...] the kitchen door slammed” (2441). Despite this, she wants to put the quilts to everyday use, which could destroy them. Not putting the quilts to everyday use could save them which helps to keep the heritage and shows that the quilts are something valuable that can be admired (Sarnowski, 2012: 285). That is something that Maggie does not consider.
In conclusion, the quilt in “Everyday Use” can be seen as a symbol to represent the heritage of African-American people and in particular the heritage of the family in the story. This essay has argued that the sisters Dee and Maggie show appreciation for their heritage in different ways, which was shown with the example of the quilt as a powerful symbol of heritage. Both opinions on the value of heritage have positive and negative aspects. While Dee may be superficial in the appreciation of her heritage, she understands that the quilt is more than an everyday object, but something valuable. When the American and the African-American society view the quilts as pieces of art, they get higher prized and gain value (Sarnowski, 2012: 284). This would help the black community to gain acceptance.
Maggie, on the other side, knows how to quilt and is part of the heritage. She values the heritage by carrying on the tradition of quilting. Yet, she does not understand how valuing the quilts by hanging them like a piece of art can help the community to gain acceptance. If she and her family showed pride towards the quilts, this would help to make people understand that African-American people have a valuable culture. Maggie and Dee both value their heritage in different ways but could still learn a lot from each other’s point of view.
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