Alice Walker illustrates the significance of heritage in material objects by contrasting the family members in the story “Everyday Use.” Walker uses Mamma and Maggie, the youngest of the two daughters, as an example that heritage travels from one generation to another through experience and learning. However, Dee, the oldest daughter, possesses a misconception of heritage as material. During Dee’s visit with Maggie and Mamma, the contrast of the characters’ becomes a conflict because Dee misplaces the significance of heritage in her hope for displaying her racial heritage. Dee doesn’t understand the true meaning of her heritage, unlike her sister and mother who do understand the true story behind the quilt and churn top. In “Everyday Use” Walker embodies the different sides of culture and heritage in the characters of Dee, Maggie and Mamma through symbolism in the quilt and churn, characterization of Mamma and Dee, and the impact of setting and education.
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Dee, Maggie, and Mamma each have a different outlook on their African heritage and culture. Unlike Mama who is rough and man-like, and Maggie who is shy and scared, Dee is confident, and beautiful: “first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God had shaped them Dee next. A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders” (Walker 111). Maggie has lived in Dee’s shadow her whole life. Mamma describes Maggie as walking with her “chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire” (Walker 109). Even though the fire has had a major impact on Maggie’s body and personality, she still lives a satisfying and practical life, sharing the daily chores with Mama. In the near future she will marry John Thomas, a local man who seems to be a realistic choice (Walker 110). Mama is more into the rough work, such as “kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man, “with her “rough, man-working hands” (Walker 110). Mamma symbolizes a simple satisfying way of life where items of culture and heritage are valued for both their usefulness as well as their personal significance. Mamma “dreams a dream” that her daughter, Dee, will arrive home and embrace her with tears in her eyes, and show affection for her. But when she comes home, Dee is seen as a stranger. She greets them saying “Wasuzo-Teano!” When Mamma refers to Dee by her name, Dee replies with “No, Mama. Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!” Mamma asks, “What happened to ‘Dee’?” Dee replies with, “She’s dead. I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker 111). Dee’s proclamation of her new name is a turning point in the story in which pushes Mamma’s limits (Farrell 179-86).
In this part of the story Dee is rejecting her family history. Dee doesn’t understand that there is actually a story of how she got her name. Mamma is quick to point out that Dee is named after her aunt, who was named after her grandmother. Even though Dee may not be an “African” name it is based on custom, tradition, ancestors and the heritage of the Johnson family. Mamma also doesn’t show her true feelings of Dee’s arrival. She replaces her own fears onto Maggie when she anticipates that Maggie will be awed by Dee’s company. However, Maggie’s behavior–even her limited use of language–conveys disgust with her sister rather than envy and awe (Tuten 125-28). Mamma expects “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, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that “no” is a word the world never learned to say to her” (Tuten 125-28). Dee can be described as selfish and unappreciative because she obviously forgets where she came from. In a sense she forgets who she really is and the kind of household she grew up in.
Mamma’s life growing up was different from the life Maggie and Dee grew up in. Mamma mentions that “after second grade, the school was closed down,” and because of this she is not educated and cannot read (Walker 110). Critics see Dee’s education and her insistence on reading to Mama and Maggie as further evidence of her separation from and lack of understanding for her family identity and heritage (Farrell 179-86). Tuten, for instance, argues that, in this story, “Walker stresses not only the importance of language but also the destructive effects of its misuse. â€¦ Rather than providing a medium for newfound awareness and for community â€¦ verbal skill equips Dee to oppress and manipulate others and to isolate herself” (Farrell 179-86). Similarly, Donna Winchell writes that “Dee tries to force on” Maggie and her mother “knowledge they probably do not need.” She continues, “Mrs. Johnson can take an objective look at whom and what she is and find not disillusionment but an easy satisfaction. Simple pleasures-a dip of snuff, a cooling breeze across a clean swept yard, church songs, the soothing movements of milk cows-are enough” (Farrell 179-86). Although they were sisters, Dee and Maggie were two very different individuals with different aspects on certain objects such as the quilts and churn top.
Maggie and Dee are very different from each other. Maggie is more of a passive individual who is unconfident and ashamed because of the burn scars that are located up and down her arms and legs, but Maggie understands the history behind simple objects, like the quilt, and the importance that it holds, unlike Dee. Dee takes the hand-crafted churn top, which she will apply “as a centerpiece for the alcove table” (Walker 112-113). Dee only wants these things to show off her African heritage, but Mamma and Maggie actually need these things to survive. Dee doesn’t realize the true value of it. Her mother and sister use the churn top everyday by making butter. Dee is only concerned about fashion and the beauty of objects. Dee relates the items with her heritage now, but thought nothing of her heritage in her youth as she was growing up. Dee’s chase of her heritage is external, wishing to have these different items in order to display them in her home and using them to show off to her friends. Dee wants to keep the items as souvenirs and display them in her home. She wants the items because she understands each to have value, but Dee doesn’t understand the deeper meaning behind the quilt or churn top. For example, instead of being used for warmth, she uses the quilt as a symbol of art or fashion to display on her wall. Dee and Mamma have different point of views on the quilts, and this makes their relationship complicated.
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Dee’s interpretation of the quilt conflicts with Mamma’s understanding of the quilts. “There are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this stitching by hand. Imagine!” (Walker 113). This line represents that Dee considers the quilt worthless because the quilt is hand-stitched, not machined. Dee plans to show the quilts or “Hang them,” (Walker 113) unlike Maggie, who will actually “put them to everyday use” (Walker 113). Mama knows that there is a connection of heritage in Maggie, and she knows that “It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught Maggie how to quilt” (Walker 113). Mama expresses herself in the climactic scene of the story not through words but through deeds: she hugs Maggie to her, drags her in the room where Dee sits holding the quilts, snatches the quilts from Dee, and dumps them into Maggie’s lap (Tuten 125-28). It’s because Maggie has such a great connection with her heritage that Mama takes the quilts from Dee who “held the quilts securely in her arms, stroking them clutching them closely to her bosom” (Walker 113) and then hands them to Maggie. Only by reaction does she finally speak and tell Dee to “take one or two of the others.” Instead of using words, Mama’s actions silence the daughter who has used language to control others and separate herself from the community: Mama tells us that Dee turns and leaves the room “without a word” (Tuten 125-28). Dee’s past is another reason of why she doesn’t understand the importance of her heritage.
Mamma remembers Dee’s childhood and her appreciation of nice things. Dee was not the least upset when their home burned to the ground while she was just a girl, “Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much” (Walker 110). Dee is misinterpreting her heritage as material goods, as opposed to her ancestor’s customs and way of life. It could be because she left her hometown to get an education and become a more sophisticated and independent young woman. Dee believes heritage to be as concrete as a quilt on the wall or an old-time butter churn in the alcove. Dee has an understanding that the items are hand made by her ancestors, but remains unaware of the knowledge and history behind them. Mamma knows the traditions behind the quilts and it puts their ancestor’s memories to everyday use. Unlike Dee, Maggie understands the true meaning of her African heritage, and she believes to put all items to good use. On the other hand, Dee enjoys flaunting the beauty of objects instead of using them for their specific use. Through the story “Everyday Use” Walker presents that heritage is a practiced tradition. People can learn about their heritage and culture from one generation to the next. It is not suddenly “picked up”. A person who possesses real heritage and culture make use of it every day of their life.
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