Alice’s Walker’s, “Everyday Use”, tells a story of a southern, African American family that consist of Mama, the story’s narrator, and her two daughters, Dee, the oldest, and her sister, Maggie. Set during the back to Africa movement of the early 1970’s, when African Americans removed their surnames or names fully and adopted new names that represented their African heritage, Dee leaves home for college and returns to announce the change of her name from Dee to Wangero.
She collects items that Mama and Maggie uses everyday to take with her, and finally tries to take a quilt that has been stitched together by her family for generations. “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker reveals the intracultural class within the Black community as African Americans struggle to piece together the elements of their lives that are both African and American into a cohesive whole. Alice Walker characterizes Dee as an aggressive, confident woman who normally gets what she wants.
Mama recalls, “Dee wanted nice things…. She was determined to stare down any disaster in her effort…At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was” (paragraph 12). Dee has ambitions and goals and lets nothing stop her from reaching them. She has her own way of going about things and is determined to get her way no matter what. Highly intelligent and ambitious, Dee goes to school to further her education and to expand her horizon, and, while in college, Dee learns the culture of her people.
However, Dee’s intelligence and ambition are characteristics that lead to the conflict in the story because they also reveal Dee’s naivety and the static nature of Walker’s character development. Because she always gets her way, Dee is single minded and does not see the clash she creates between herself and her family members. When she first returns home, she snaps photos of Mama and Maggie sitting on the porch as if they are artifacts of an old way of life, illustrating their setting in an old way of life, and her modern, Afro-centric world.
She flaunts her education by reading to Mama and Maggie and gives unnecessary information as if they are dimwits further contrasting herself with her mother and sister, and does not realize the division she is causing. Dee has gotten all that she has wanted; however, her education does not indicate a dynamic development in her character. The level of Dee’s greed and superiority are finally revealed as she tries to take a quilt Mama has promised to Maggie. Dee and Mama argue for a while then Dee claims, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts…They’re riceless…You just don’t understand…Your heritage” (paragraph 66-81). Dee knows the objects are of valuable, so she wants to show them off, in her world, as an example of her coming from nothing to the college educated woman she has become. Walker’s character development allows the setting to show in the contrast of Dee’s world, her stroking hand adorned in bangles as part of her African grab, against the faded much used quilt from Mama and Maggie’s world.
Dee believes Mama doesn’t understand her own heritage because the quilt is rare and valuable, and she doesn’t see why Maggie, who doesn’t know how valuable the quilts are and will put it to everyday use, should have them. Even though Dee is gifted and excels in school, she is completely unaware that her true cultural heritage, honor, survival, family and family history, have been passed down through generations. Driven by ego and blinded to the truth, Dee thinks her culture is found in books rather than the stitches of the quilts, the fabric of her mother’s promise to her children.
Mama wants to honor her promise to give the quilts to Maggie, and it was Mama who provided Dee with the opportunity to receive an education, “But that was before we raised the money, the church and me, to send her to Augusta to school” (paragraph 11). Dee, however, does not realize the history of her culture is not just in the quilts, the items and pictures, but the people that take the knowledge and abilities they learned from their ancestors to provide for the current and next generation; that’s why culture heritage can not be learned in school.
On the other hand, Maggie, the sister who does not go to school, is fully aware of her cultural heritage. Maggie, being very family-orientated, reveals the knowledge of her family. Dee asks for the dasher, her friend asks if Uncle Buddy had made it and they both look at Mama for confirmation, but it was Maggie who says, “Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash…His name was Henry, but they called him Stash” (paragraph 52). In recognition of Maggie’s expertise of the family’s history Dee says Maggie has the brain of an elephant; meaning she remembers a lot.
Maggie comprehends the family history and can identify what responsibilities people in the family possessed. Mama’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband, helped Mama’s family by making them a dasher; Walker uses this to illustrate how united their families are because they assist each other when needed. In addition, they gave Mama’s brother-in-law a nickname; nicknames are a sign of affection and Maggie calls him by his nickname which shows their close relationship. Maggie inherited her culture customs.
Mama explains, “She knows she is not bright…She will marry John Thomas and then I’ll be free to sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself” (paragraph 13). Maggie will become like her mom and keep the tradition of the southern black woman because she too is uneducated, will marry, and raise kids. Walker reveals the cultural heritage of southern blacks that they are supposed to get married and raise children. Maggie tells Mama Dee can have the quilt, which was promised to her, and she can remember her grandmother without the quilt.
Maggie says, “She can have them, Mama…I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (paragraph 74). Then Mama explains, “It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught her how to quilt herself. She stood there with her scarred hands hidden in the folds oh her skirt” (paragraph 75). Maggie doesn’t need the quilt to remember her grandmother because she has memories which are more valuable to her than the quilt. The quilt is just a symbol of the memories Maggie had with her grandmother. Grandma Dee and Big Dee taught Maggie the skill of quilting which has been passed down through family generations.
This shows the cultural heritage of the family that they are skilled quilt makers. Maggie is very family-orientated she learns the family skill of making quilts, has knowledge of the family tree and its history. Maggie is very close with her family because she calls them by their nicknames and has plenty of memories of the family. She will continue to pass on the culture heritage of the family by marrying, having children, teaching her children how to quilt, and keeping the family close together as did the people before her; she is her family cultural heritage.
What makes the story well written is because it reminds people that they are their cultural heritage and that’s not something people can just get from a one dimensional textbook. It shows how two people can be raised by the same mother and have a different view of life, as in they are sisters by blood, grow up in the same house, and be so far apart. There is one sibling, Dee, she has a lot of text book knowledge of her people’s history, but loses touch with her own cultural heritage, and than there is the other sister, Maggie, she has no text book knowledge of her people’s history but is living proof of her people’s history.
A great lesson people need to learn because people are losing touch with their family morals and becoming less family orientated, which is weakening a lot of families. United people stand together and divided people falls, which is the key lesson the story, teaches and makes it a well written story because it is able to take something that is happening in real life and reflects it to where an average person can relate.
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