Last Updated 17 Jun 2020

Everyday Use by Alice Walker

Category Everyday Use, Racism
Essay type Research
Words 911 (3 pages)
Views 455
In the early 1970s, the Black Power movement was not only a political slogan against racism, but also an ideology that promoted racial pride and embraced the elements of the African culture. During this time, many African-Americans were encouraged to grow their hairs into afros, wear traditional African clothing, and reject their white slave names. In the story Everyday Use, Alice Walker presents a family with opposing views towards tradition and creates a character fooled by the Black Power movement.

The author uses irony to reveal a meaning of heritage hidden under the perceived idea of African-American identity. From the beginning, the oldest daughter, Dee, pretends to honor and embrace her roots, yet she rejects her past and her ancestors. When she comes home to visit Mama and her sister Maggie, she wears an extravagant yellow dress, gold earrings, and dangling bracelets. She uses the African greeting “Wa-su-zo-Tean-o! ” and begs not be called Dee, but Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, since she does not want to be “named after the people who oppressed [her]” (Schmidt 350).

Dee changes her name to reconnect with, what she believes is, her African heritage. However, this turns to be ironic because she was named after her aunt Dicie, who was named after Grandma Dee, and by changing her name, Wangero is evading the important aspects of her name and the traditions of her family. Although Wangero is very educated, she lacks the most valuable knowledge. Throughout the story, she portrays an arrogant attitude of superiority towards Mama and Maggie.

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Mama says, “ she used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folk's habits, whole lives upon us, 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” (Schmidt 348). Mama does not feel pride for her daughter’s accomplishments; instead, she feels intimidated by Dee's egocentrism. The irony comes when Wangero believes her knowledge puts her above her family, yet Mama's knowledge has a greater value. Mama is “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” (Schmidt 347).

She is proud of her hard work and ability to butcher bull calves and milk cows; after all, she learned this from her mother, who learned it from her mother. This is the kind of knowledge the author wants the reader to see and appreciate—the type of knowledge that conveys African-American tradition. Even though Wangero finds in a churn and dasher her African-American identity, she is blind to the significance of these items. Dee values the churn and dasher because they are old, and her uncle whittled them back in the day.

She says she “can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table, […] and [she]'ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher” (Schmidt 351). With this attitude, Wangero expresses her view towards the items as amazing antique collectibles. Maggie, on the other hand, explains that “Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash […] His name was Henry, but they called him Stash” (Schmidt 351). The fact that she knows the story behind the churn and dasher illustrates her deep appreciation towards the items.

Likewise, when Mama holds the dasher, she reflects on its origin and its meaning to the family: “You didn't even need to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there where a lot of small sinks” (Schmidt 351). The sinks in the wood represent the hard labor her family endured and the tenacious efforts Dee would, ironically, never even acknowledge. Wangero also finds a connection to her African culture with Mama's quilts; however, she does not understand the traditional value of these items.

Dee wants to keep the quilts to show off her heritage and hang them on her wall as decorations; she thinks her sister will not appreciate them and will put them to everyday use. Maggie agrees to give up her promised quilts because after all, she “can 'member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (Schmidt 352). However, Mama will not let Dee keep them because deep inside, she knows that Maggie deserves them. Maggie learned how to quilt from aunt Dee, who learned how to quilt from Grandma Dee; therefore, she will be able to keep their culture and their history alive.

After this decision, Wangero responds furiously, “You just don't understand […] your heritage” (Schmidt 323), and suggests that the quilts have a materialistic a value that has to be preserved in order to maintain the family's African heritage. Ironically, the quilts are not valuable because they are old and their ancestors sewed them; instead, they are priceless because they represent a tradition that many hard working black women followed for years. The author suggests that Maggie has an understanding her sister never will; she understands the real meaning of African heritage.

Wangero was one of the many African-Americans in the 1970s who struggled to define their identity within the framework of American society. She changed her name and her appearance in efforts to embrace her African roots and tried to collect antique items to preserve her family's heritage. However, Dee's arrogant attitude blinded her from seeing the traditional value of the African culture, and left her with a superficial understanding about her heritage. Alice Walker uses Wangero's and Mama's conflicting ideologies to suggest that the substance of an object is more valuable than its style.

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