Secondary Source – “Everyday Use”

Cowart, David. “Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.'” Short Story Criticism, edited by Jelena O. Krstovic, vol. 97, Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center, http:// Accessed 13 Nov. 2018. Originally published in Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 33, no. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 171-84.

Walker’s story follows Dee Johnson, or Wangero, Maggie and their mother, the narrator.  Cowart begins his criticism with the idea “Everyday Use” “addresses itself to the dilemma of African Americans who, in striving to escape prejudice and poverty, risk a terrible deracination, a sundering from all that has sustained and defined them.” Wangero, previously named Dee, changes her name to feel more attached to her cultural heritage, ironically moving herself further away from her real heritage.  Cowart argues Walker creates Wangero’s character to be similar to that of a literary writer, in that one “must not become a literary Wangero” when writing about “the authentic art they represent.”  The basis of Cowart’s argument is that when writing about heritage and culture, one must represent their own art and culture within their literary words, which Cowart believes Walker does within her characters. Wangero believes the family quilts will link her further to her heritage. However, like her name change, the quilts aid only in furthering Wangero from her culture, seen in her ignorance in their significance within her own family.  Cowart states, “An American who attempts to become an African succeeds only in becoming a phony.”  Wangero and her black, Muslim boyfriend embrace a culture “alien” to them to attempt to find an identity, only to become “pose.” Cowart furthers his argument by stating Maggie, Wangero’s sister, represents an individual whose sister escaped and succeeded, leaving her behind.  Wangero sees herself as embodying and appreciating the identity of her black ancestors, while her family is left in the dust of poverty.  Cowart argues Walker purposely portrays herself as Wangero, while actually intending a self-depiction of Maggie. This may be due to the “distorting pressures” brought on to African Americans and the different shapes Walker’s writing has taken due to that distortion.  The distorted language writers face, Cowart states, is the quilts, which exhibit “a special integrity resembling that of the language in which the author writes her story.”  Furthermore, the quilts represent a past no more, but the tradition lives on through quilt-making and the skill’s “everyday use” that keeps it alive.  Cowart’s final point touches again on deracination “in the quest for personal authenticity” and the failure in one’s ignorance of the true influences that shape their identity, in both discovering one’s self sin personal life and writing. 

While some points are a bit exaggerated by Cowart, I agree with most of them, particularly “An American who attempts to become an African succeeds only in becoming a phony.” Dee was named after “aunt Dicie,” but Dee insists she was named after oppressors of African Americans, solely because Dee is an American name.  Because of this, Dee, or Wangero, changes her name in order to feel more connected with her roots, but ironically only furthers herself from them.  The quilts she so desperately wants act in the same manner, Wangero refers to them as “priceless,” and wants them to hang on her wall, as a piece of art.  Wangero fails to acknowledge the quilts’ designs in their representation of the “Lone Star pattern” and the “pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s paisley shirts” stitched in.  In reality, the quilts represent the linking of generations from years ago, and the African American culture their family has chosen to include over the years.  Wangero is aware of the significance of the quilts, but fails to see how they aid in connecting her to heritage, and not just a general African culture. Wangero has fabricated a culture of her own mimicking those of oppressed African Americans generations.  Realistically, Wangero grew up educated, and eventually left the world she came from, and “made it,” as the narrator, her mother, phrases it.  The narrator, because of Wangero’s attitude above her and Maggie, sees herself and Maggie in a dimmer light.  She highlights Maggie’s flaws and compares them to Dee’s lack of them.  This is due to Wangero’s stance above her family, because of her education, “good looks,” “determination,” and overall attitude and lack of respect. Wangero experiences poverty yes, but her life thus far is not comparable to the suffering and oppression experienced by the African American people as a culture, or the “African American experience.”  Thus, the quilts represent a lack of understanding, among both individuals ignorant of their own heritage, ignorant of the difficult past of others, and lacking respect.  Furthermore, Wangero, in her sudden want for connection to her past, has often disliked where she came from. Years ago, Dee, Maggie and the narrator’s house burned down.  Looking back on the memory, the narrator, Dee’s mother, describes Dee as having a “look of concentration on her face” as the final pieces of the house burned away.  She further describes Dee’s emotion towards the flame as seeming to want to “dance around the ashes.”  Dee was not sad to see the house go.  She thought, even at a young age, it was not a house meant for her.  Dee “wanted nice things” and her childhood home was not one of them.  If you cannot respect where you and your family started or came from, you cannot respect where you will go or who you are entirely.  Dee did not respect her family or home when she was younger, and does not respect them now. 

Dee discarded her heritage years ago, and Walker’s “Everyday Use” describes her ignorance of that disrespect in the rise of artificial connection to the past.  Wangero is materialistic, evident in her emphasis on the importance of objects and her overall lack of realistic generational appreciation and respect.

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