Table of Contents
1. Dee’s Concept of Heritage
2. The Concept of Heritage of Mrs. Johnson and Maggie
3. Quilts as Symbol of Cultural Heritage
4. Alice Walker’s Role as Literary Quiltmaker
Alice Walker’s 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 reach more than mere racial equality and insisted on self-determination and racial dignity. The tracing of ancestral African roots, the slogan Black is Beautiful, and the Afro hair style arose. African American short stories of this period were often concerned with problematic issues of integration, separation, redefinition of the past, distant African heritage, and immediate family history. In “Everyday Use”, the contrast between two sisters and the domestic struggle over old hand-made quilts reveal the use and misuse of the concept of heritage and different attitudes towards one’s familiar traditions and cultural background. Alice Walker not only explores a disturbed intrafamily relationship between three black women of the South, but represents a severe conflict within America’s black society, where new radical views and misperceptions of the word heritage collide with traditional black rural life style.
A singular general meaning of the term heritage does not exist. Dictionaries mostly carry several definitions. For example, the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Encyclopedic Dictionary gives the following two entries:
1. Property that is or can be inherited; an inheritance.
2. Something other than property passed down from preceding generations; a legacy; a tradition. (Rattray 789)
1. Dee’s Concept of Heritage
The short story “Everyday Use” opens as Mrs. Johnson and her younger daughter Maggie await a visit from Dee, the elder daughter, who early on left home to attend college in Augusta. To her family’s surprise, she shows that she is riding on the latest wave of fashionable Africanism by arriving in a loud-colored outfit with her hair standing “straight up like the wool on a sheep” (Walker 2322). Dee explains that she has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, because she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress” her (Walker 2322). This controversial step reveals Dee’s confusion concerning the nature of her heritage. While her original name, already carried by several female ancestors, can be traced back beyond the Civil War, the new African name is not related to her personal history and dissociates the young woman from her family.
Dee has suddenly developed an interest in her family’s old hand-made household items and asks her mother for a churn top, a dasher, and two quilts. She only sees the decorative value of these artefacts and wants to misuse them by turning them into abstract pieces of art: “’I can use the churntop as a centerpiece for the alcove table’ . . . ‘and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher.’” (Walker 2323) The quilts are supposed to be hanged on the wall. Despite her neo-African style, she has adapted to a white Western attitude towards art by applying the aesthetic concept of art for art’s sake to objects of everyday use. By exclaiming that the quilts are “priceless” (Walker 2324), she commodifies the African American past and “purports to know the value of the work of black women as holy patchers.” (Baker and Pierce-Baker 312) But Dee’s claiming of the quilt blankets cannot be regarded as an earnest interest in her heritage, because the mother remarks that her daughter had rejected them previously: “Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style.” (Walker 2324) Her sudden change of mind can be interpreted as a manipulation through the media and present style makers. Just like she is showing off the pride in her African origins, she wants to display her heritage on walls and coffee tables. For Dee, “one’s heritage is something that one puts on display if and when such a display is fashionable.” (Cowart 175)
Her obsession with Africa seems to be the latest in a series of attempts to distance herself from her mother and Maggie, whom she both regards as backward and inferior. When she was younger, she already used to challenge them:
She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand. (Walker 2321)
As a child, she welcomed the burning of her family’s house, because it represented the poverty and racial oppression she sought to escape from. Now she has realized the dream and left her rural southern environment. Her attempt to photograph her mother and sister in front of their house can be seen as a desire to create a record of how far she has distanced herself from black poverty. The polaroid pictures as well as the dasher, the churn lid, and the quilts are supposed to serve as reminders of a rural past that she no longer has to live.
After her mother refuses to give her the quilts, she attacks her relatives verbally: “’You just don’t understand’ . . . ‘Your heritage’ . . . ‘You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.’” (Walker 2325) But despite this accusation, Dee is the one that is disconnected from a real tradition and identity. The sociological term marginal man, coined by Robert Park, can be applied to her character. The expression describes a person existing between two cultural societies at the same time without being part of either one. Dee is not only torn between the black American and the African world, but also confronted with black and white America. Like many black intellectuals of her generation she has incorporated the philosophy of Cultural Nationalism: “while these 1960s ideologues extolled an unknown ancient history, they denigrated the known and recent past.” (Christian 10) The older generation of conservative blacks leading traditional lives were accused by them of being “Uncle Toms” (Christian 10) with little awareness of their culture and heritage.
Hakim-a-Barber, Dee’s Black Muslim friend, has also embraced a new religion and culture, but only accepts certain doctrines suitable for him to establish a political pose and leaves the rest. Compared to the Muslim commune living near the Johnson’s house and being engaged in farming and cattle raising, he cannot be taken seriously because his principles lack foundation.
’Everyday Use’ . . . shows respect for the ‘militance’ and progressive agricultural programs of the Muslims, but at the same time shows skepticism about a young man who claims attachment to the Muslims because he admires the rhetoric. It allows him to acknowledge his contempt for whites, which is all he believes the group is about. (Christian 76)