Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Heritage is a concept passed down through family in their traditions, stories, and interactions. However, in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” the view on heritage becomes thorny, reflecting the current issues of African Americans and their struggle to differentiate between their history as slaves and their family history. She presents the conflicting idea of heritage as valuing simple familial connections or extravagant physical displays. Alice Walker uses the voice of the mother, her different focalization of the daughters, and the allegorical purpose of the daughters to convey the complicated struggle of African Americans and their definition of heritage to show the different perspectives on heritage and suggest that neither deserve to be condemned.

The story is narrated by Dee and Maggie’s mother, who is revealed as a poorly educated, “large, big-boned woman” (Walker 315). This physical description is important because it is later stated that Dee is the opposite, having “nicer hair and a fuller figure” (316) than her sister, Maggie, and having attended school. Right away the audience is made aware of the distinct difference that Mama sees in herself and Dee. This important distinction sets the tone for the comparison that appears throughout the text. The narrator’s eldest daughter has become everything that Mama believes she could never be: educated, fashionable, and confident, which explains why Dee also learns a different view of heritage than Mama. The disconnect between mother and daughter parallels the disconnect between many African Americans that view each other as strangers based on their differences in education. Mama looks at Maggie as someone similar to herself, grouping them into one social identity group and Dee into another. Walker is using the mother’s voice to distinctly show an “us versus them” phenomenon in the family. Having their mother as the narrator allows Alice Walker to show the basic, skin deep disparities between the sisters, their educations, and their lots in life. This translates into Alice Walker’s idea that having different lots in life can affect how African Americans view their heritage and develop some hostility towards the other perspectives. At times, hostility is evident in the voice of the mother, relating to the inability to understand other values. “Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask [Dee]” (316). Mama seems accusatory and angry towards the distant Dee, an example of how she is incapable of understanding her daughter’s feelings because they are different. Telling the story through the voice of the mother exposes the prejudice among African Americans and their peers that view heritage as something other than their own ideals. Mama views heritage as a familial connection, whereas Dee views heritage as a grandiose display and return to her culture before slavery. The voice of the mother sets the stage for Walker to begin comparing the differences between Maggie and Dee, and in a greater sense the difference between heritage defined by familial values and materialistic values.

Having Mama as the narrator not only gives insight into her mind and opinions of the girls, it also gives the audience the ability to see what she is seeing. Alice Walker employs Mama as the focalizer. Through her eyes we are given specific details regarding the two daughters. For instance, the narrator is constantly putting our focus on Maggie’s feelings. “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed…eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe” (315). Mama understands Maggie’s feelings because they both embrace family and emotional connections. They both celebrate traditional views of heritage and oral history. On the other hand, Dee is often described either regarding her actions or her appearance. “[Dee] never takes a shot without making sure the house is included…Then she puts the Polaroid in the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead” (318). In this scene, Mama narrates Dee’s actions, but has no insight into Dee’s thoughts as she is taking photos of the house. This behavior contradicts Mama’s previous idea that Dee would hate the new house. Thus, our narrator evidently has no idea how her eldest daughter thinks and feels; however, she shares a bond with Maggie that allows her to understand her emotions and insecurities. Walker uses focalization to develop how the characters are presented both to the audience and Mama. The focalization also helps Walker showcase the two ideas of heritage. Dee’s view on heritage is based on demonstrating it through her dress and putting family artifacts with history on display, like African Americans that search for a sense of history in their culture and displaying traditional ideas. Opposingly, Maggie has been characterized as having a greater emotional connection and being far more like her mother, presenting the idea that heritage comes from families despite slavery. Specific focus on Maggie’s emotions and Dee’s actions drives Walker’s point that heritage can be defined by an emotional connection to the family or it can be defined by actions and displays of objects related to the family and traditions.

Throughout the short story, Alice Walker develops the sisters as allegorical characters. Maggie represents the classic view of heritage as traditions and stories passed down the family line. When Hakim-a-barber asks a question regarding the history of the dasher, Dee does not have the answer. Instead Maggie chimes in, “’Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash…His name was Henry, but they called him Stash’” (319). Maggie holds a connection to these pieces and the history of the family and values items for their purpose and history. Thus, she is meant to present the view of heritage as something defined by emotional relationships and an emphasis on connections to others. This seems to be the definition of heritage that Mama agrees with, not because she explicitly says so, but because she defends Maggie when she realizes that Dee doesn’t necessarily care for the history behind the quilt. Dee instead values items and actions to show her heritage. Whereas Maggie desires the quilts for personal use, Dee states that she would hang the quilts for show. This lines up with her characterization. She has mostly been described through actions and appearances, making her the allegorical representative of heritage defined by valuing a display of one’s cultural background. The first instance of Dee demonstrating a greater emphasis on her cultural background rather than her familial connections occurs when she corrects her mother on her new name, “’Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo… [Dee]’s dead’” (318). Dee has embraced a view of heritage as displaying her culture both in her home and in her clothing. Alice Walker has now presented two very different and seemingly contradictory views on heritage because Dee’s decision to change her name to something culturally accurate is rejecting the view of heritage being defined by family relationships. However, while Mama seems to agree with Maggie in the end, we must consider the distance that Alice Walker has from the narrator and the allegorical characters. Alice Walker is an African American woman and likely has considered these differing perspectives of heritage. We cannot definitively state that Walker prefers one view of heritage over the other, but we can acknowledge that they both exist and that both daughters have understandable reasons for their differing value.

Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” calls on the audience to consider their own definition of heritage. She points out the prejudice between African Americans regarding their views on heritage and that the line between distancing oneself from their oppressive slave masters and their own family is a thin one that Dee dances on, symbolic of the numerous other African Americans facing this issue. Maggie and Mama represent the traditional idea of heritage and family traditions. Alice Walker writes not to condemn one view over the other, but to promote the acknowledgement of both as acceptable forms of self-expression.

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