In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” there are many different things that Walker conveys throughout the story all of which deal with the African American’s history and values. The one thing that sticks out the most in the short story is the character of Dee who is developed into a very important character throughout the story. Walker is able to express her essential idea of heritage through Dee’s attitude, her behavior, and her actions in “Everyday Use.” Dee is a very unthankful and unappreciative of her history, and in result the reader can develop an understanding of African American’s heritage. Through Dee’s characteristics shown by her attitude, personality, and actions, Walker in “Everyday Use” conveys the central idea of heritage in the short story.
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Dee is an individual that doesn’t particularly stick to her true heritage and shows a feeling of embarrassment toward her ancestry, her mom, and her sister. Dee comes across as one that holds herself above her mother and sister especially since she received an education. Nancy Tuten understands Dee as one that wants so badly to go to school to become educated so that she is not seen as stupid, showing that she is not exactly proud of her past. She doesn’t appreciate her mother and sister living in the same way they have for years, suggesting an idea of embarrassment toward her past (Tuten). Tuten points out that Dee always “attempts to devalue their lifestyle,” and seems to have a “desire that Mama and Maggie be something that they are not” (126). Tuten notes that Mama hates the selfishness that Dee brings to the table, but still wishes to get respect from her daughter. Tuten brings in a source from Lindsey Tucker who suggests that Dee basically carries a “white middle-class identity” (126). Another valuable piece of information brought in for Tuten’s article is Valerie Smith’s thoughts interpreted by Marianne Hirsch explaining Maggie’s feelings of embarrassment in front of Dee. Smith points out the part of the story when Mama is interpreting how Maggie will react to Dee and her arrival. Mama supposes that “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe” (Walker 108). Hirsch views Maggie as one that seems “powerless” and “pathetic” (Tuten 127). All of these aspects that Dee has brought to the table make her appear to the reader that she is under-appreciative of what her heritage has really done for her which leads to the interpretation that she is embarrassed.
Dee also goes far enough into her fairytale life and changes her name, attempting to disregard her family’s identity, clearly showing her shame for it. Tuten’s article also points out Hirsch’s view regarding this change of name in “Everyday Use.” She understands Mama as one that hasn’t shown any frustration toward Dee until this section when Dee can’t even keep her name and a portion of her past. Hirsch notes that Walker changes the verb tense in that conversation over her identity change, creating a voice for Mama that has much more power (Tuten). This power is eventually used, says Tuten, to help Mama, “affirm her allegiance to Maggie and to assert her emotional freedom from Dee” (128). David Cowart also discusses the disloyalty of Dee by changing her name which was passed from generation to generation in their family all the way back and past the Civil War. Cowart views this disloyal action along with “her clothes, her hair, her sunglasses, her patronizing speech, and her Black Muslim companion” as Dee trying to declare “a deplorable degree of alienation from her rural origins and family” (172). Dee doesn’t grasp the idea that her name connects her to her heritage, and by changing that she is seen as trying to disregard where she comes from. Cowart knows Dee as one that has basically detached herself from a “nurturing tradition” (172).
Dee chooses to disengage herself from her ancient name which was passed down in her family for something classier such as Wangero. Her name was also her great-grandmother’s name, and by changing it, Dee appears to not have much care for her family. She believes it is much classier, but Helga Hoel notes that the name is distorted from the original reference to a Kikuyu name. Hoel brings in a source from Barbara Christian clarifying that “names are extremely important in African and African American culture as a means of indicating a person’s spirit” (Hoel 37). In conclusion to this remark, Dee can be seen as one that is trying to get rid of her name and heritage which links her to the rest of her family that is a supposed to be a very important part in her life. Hoel declares that Dee’s identity change of her first and middle name do not even represent one ethnic group, instead it relates to the entire East African area. Hoel notices this mistake and views it as something that shows Dee’s “superficial knowledge of Africa and all it stands for” (37). This point made contributes to the thought that Dee doesn’t appreciate her heritage because she is trying to alter it and doesn’t even understand what is truly behind her new one either.
Dee wants to take several items in the house to represent her family’s ancestry put on display at her house rather than putting them into everyday use. She disconnects herself from her family name, but still believes that she should be able to take many family items to be put on display. Cowart understands Dee’s desire for the quilts, the churn lid, and the photographs “for purposes of display, reminders that she no longer has to live in such a house, care for such a cow, and have daily intercourse with such a mother and sister” (175). Donna Haisty Winchell in Cowart’s article implies that Dee “makes the mistake of believing that one’s heritage is something that one puts on display if and when such a display is fashionable” (Cowart 175). Dee does not see the wrong to take these items from Mama and Maggie, failing to appreciate their heritage. Instead, Cowart proposes that “she, who wants only to preserve that heritage as the negative index to her own sophistication” (175). When Dee comes home to visit Mama and Maggie, she takes her share of photos. She takes several shots, those of the cows, Maggie, and of course the house. Whitsitt notes that she photographs everything and frames the image of Maggie’s and Mama’s lifestyle, making it resemble a life she is not a component of. The source from the Bakers in this article says that they know this as Dee’s “fashionably ‘aesthetic’ distance from southern expediencies,” and her “framed experience” of her heritage (Whitsitt 449).
In addition to Dee’s desire for family items, she also brings along a characteristic of overlooking these possessions and devaluing items such as the quilts which should mean something to her and her heritage. Elaine Showalter notes in Cowart’s article that the quilts, fought over by Wangero (Dee) and her mother indicate an ancestry that is much “more personal and immediate than the intellectual and deracinated daughter can see” (Cowart 179). Quilts are seen as the “creative legacy that African Americans have inherited from their maternal ancestors” says Barbara Christian in Sam Whitsitt’s literary critique (Whitsitt 443). The quilts connect women and men and families to their later generations to their past by resembling the tradition and pieces of their past which will be passed to those in the current days (Whitsitt). Cowart says that the quilts illustrate the ancestry that Dee has already abandoned which she now doesn’t even share her name with the people in her family whose lives were pieced together from their old scraps of clothes into quilts (Cowart). Barbara Christian in Cowart’s article remarks that the heritage in the eyes of Maggie and Mama is depended on by living a tradition. The quilting and butter churning along with their developed nags for it are passed down from each generation in their family. She believes that Mama and Maggie should continue to be put these items into everyday use as they continue to keep up the trend in doing everything and living the tradition. Maggie is the one that can quilt, and if Dee is the one that gets the quilt, then the tradition along with the learned skills will stop and discontinue throughout the family tree (Cowart).
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Whitsitt also notices a verb tense after Dee announces her identity change which he believes gives Mama’s voice more power along with creating an invisible frame that sets apart Dee from Mama and Maggie and their lifestyle. When Mama changes tenses to gain more authority after Dee tells her of her identity change, Whitsitt believes that Mama is then starting to be framed with Mama outside with a different view on lifestyle and the family’s heritage (Whitsitt). In the story the reader views Mama’s excitement of Dee coming home as her ready to enjoy time being spent with her daughter. She understands that she has left to become educated and changed her lifestyle which partly results in their different views on everything. Whitsitt brings in a quote from Hirsch, who notices the discrepancy of the two but says that Mama does a great job of making her decisions by herself and not changing her values of her heritage like her daughter did. He says that she has an “ability to maintain a distance from Dee without visibly rejecting her” (Whitsitt 451). When Dee introduces her identity change, Whitsitt notices this verb shift as Tuten did and recognizes it as Mama’s epiphany when “something hit me in the top of my head and ran down the soles of my feet,” leading Mama to take charge and do something that “I never had done before: hugged Maggie to meâ€¦” (Walker 113). He understands the unframed to framed, present tense to past tense forms to represent the idea of alteration and Walker’s attention paid toward it. Whitsitt concludes that the central characters in the story have changed throughout “Everyday Use.” He points out that “Dee, whose insensitive intrusion, who in spite of herself brings Mama to claim a voice” (Whitsitt 454). Dee’s change helps Mama develop and change in the story by eventually gaining voice and sticking up for herself along with Maggie and the quilts (Whitsitt).
Dee’s actions of trying to take the quilts which were promised to Maggie, characterizes her as a thief. One who notices the cruel action is Whitsitt, who considers the attempted action as stealing from her innocent sister, Maggie. He notices that Dee wants to take the quilts along with other items of the house, but without any connection such as an “obligation” to them which Whitsitt views as “denigrating the quilts, and then claiming they are priceless” (456). Dee gets very angry and frustrated after Mama says that she promised the quilts to Maggie, and she blames Maggie noting that she is “too backward to know the difference between things of value and of no value” (Walker 112). Whitsitt believes this comment and finger-pointing is also done in an indirect way pointed not only at Maggie but also toward Mama and their standard of living (Whitsitt).
Regardless of all of Dee’s disloyal actions, attitudes, and undermining, she still wants to use the quilts to put up on her wall to represent her ancestry. She is unappreciative of the material things such as the quilts, but she still believes that she deserves them even though she is embarrassed of her past. She mistakes her own heritage and changes her name to something that isn’t even correct from her country. She takes her heritage for granted by changing into some would call a “phony” (Cowart172). Dee values her heritage for all the wrong reasons such as when she is said to use it as aesthetics to put on display in her house but really only to show that she is no longer a part of it anymore. She always puts down Maggie and Mama, hinting that they need to change and quit living in the past, but really Maggie and Mama feel that they should be living in tradition rather than changing their everyday life. Dee recognizes herself as confirming her African heritage especially by changing her name to Wangero, by changing her way of life, and by changing her appearance, but she only seems to belittle her cultural background.
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