Family Threads And

“Everyday Use” Essay, Research Paper

By contrasting family members in “Everyday Use”, Alice Walker illustrates the importance of understanding our present life in relation to the traditions of our own people and culture. While the story clearly endorses Mama’s functional and unsophisticated perspective on heritage over Dee’s misplaced reverence for material goods, it does not condemn Dee’s struggle to move beyond the limits of her impoverished youth. The conflict between Mama and Maggie, the younger sister, and Dee, the older sister, stems from the women’s poverty-stricken past and continues to stretch to the present day. As a child, Dee had always “wanted nice things.” (Walker, 2) She was unsatisfied with her family’s simple life and rural home in the deep south and yearned for an education and emigration from her limited life at home. Her excellent grades, the kindness of the local church and the diligence of her mother won her a scholarship to a better school in a different town. She would read to her crudely educated mother and sister “forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice.” (Walker, 2) Dee’s intense desire for an education and a better life isolated her from family and consequently, from her family’s heritage. Mama and Maggie, however, never left their family’s traditions. Mama is a hard-working, strong woman like her mother and grandmother before her, while Maggie lives her families past, cherishing the memories and remembering all the stories “like an elephant” (Walker, 6).

Although Dee and Maggie are dissimilar to each other, they each possess specific personality traits of the author as well as the common background of growing up in the rural south, the setting for many of Walker’s stories. Through Dee and Maggie Johnson, Walker tries to reconcile the duality and conflicting feelings within herself. Like Maggie, she had a physical disability. She was blinded in one eye from an accidental gunshot wound at the age of eight. Similarly, she shared Dee’s unquenchable desire for education and high regard for her African heritage, even studying in Senegal for part of her college career. Walker’s personal dichotomy is recognized in the Johnson women’s struggle for their own heritage in “Everyday Use”. Her aspiration for an individual connection with her heritage is demonstrated in the positive presentation of Mama and Maggie lives as they pass the thread of family from one generation to the next through knowledge, experience and learning. When Dee visits their humble house, she and her Muslim companion, Asalamalakim, seem delighted with the charm of the family’s simple life. As an educated, city sophisticate, Dee follows the current trends towards the “backward” ways and traditions of the family that she once scorned. She associates her heritage with material goods and confuses its significance in her desire for racial heritage. Dee’s labors for progress via education and refinement reflect Walker’s own efforts for growth through enlightenment and culture. Her misplaced admiration for these items and the contempt for her family’s unenlightened life are not malicious, however, but a hope that Mama and Maggie will explore other options and better themselves in the progressively expanding world. She tells Maggie, “It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.”(Walker, 8)

Dee’s misunderstanding about the meaning of her heritage emerges clearly in her attitude toward the quilts and other household items. While she now renounces the name of her immediate ancestors, she eagerly covets their old handmade benches, quilts and butter churns. To Dee, these artifacts are strictly aesthetic objects; their functional use is obsolete. She has reduced the rich heritage of her family to elements of home d?cor rather than a sincere interest to become close to her family. She was even offered the quilts before leaving for college but rejected them as “old-fashioned, out of style”. (Walker, 8) Dee’s confusion is further exemplified by her new Africanized name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. She “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” (Walker, 4) With her new name, Dee seems to want to solidify her connection with her African ancestors and reject the traditions of her slave ancestors. To Mama and Maggie, the name “Dee” is symbolic of their family unit; and beloved family members have born the name for generations since the Civil War. It is a personal and true family name. Dee’s rejection of that name symbolizes the denial of her family’s past and part of her heritage.

The much-disputed quilts symbolize the Johnson family’s (as well as the Walker’s family) history. Quilted by two generations, they contain remnants of fabric from the past, including a scrap of Great Grandpa Ezra’s Civil War uniform. The argument over the quilts epitomizes the black women’s dilemma in confronting the future. After Mama gives Maggie the quilts, Dee says, “You just don’t understand . . .Your heritage” (Walker, 9). Dee believes heritage to be as tangible as a quilt on the wall or a quaint butter churn in the alcove. She knows the items are hand-made but is unaware of the knowledge and history behind them. Both Mama and Maggie know the traditions and history behind the artifacts and live them. They put their ancestor’s memories and traditions to everyday use. The story clarifies Dee’s confusion about her heritage from both her immediate family and the larger black tradition. Maggie may ruin the quilts by using them in the way they were intended, but she can continue the tradition by creating her own quilts and teaching her daughters the skill.

1. “Everyday Use”, Alice Walker,


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