Themes Of Heritage And National Identity In Alice Walker's Everyday Use

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The portrayal of a heritage-leaning protagonist who preserves her African-American traditions and a contrasting character that shares the same folklore, but renounces her American custom, invites us to question in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” about how these experiences of oppression can ignite change on an identity. The former describes the mother, having a strong sense of understanding on her own culture, does not allow her eldest daughter Dee, the one described by the latter, to claim the heirloom quilts for display purposes and should instead be given to Maggie, her younger sister for it to be used. The story may appear as a typical mother and daughter relationship gap, having a conflict on their respective beliefs. However, Walker’s use of this timely situation serves as a mechanism to echo her critique of those individuals who misunderstood the ideals of their own culture. The short story is set in the late 1960s to early 1970s wherein African-Americans are in crisis to define their own identities in relation to heritage (White). They want to search on their African roots and deny their American custom since their experience of discrimination is too massive for them to bear and remember. Walker contends that being an African-American is being African-American in all aspects. Rejecting this other side of an individual’s heritage can be considered as harmful and a form of disrespect to the ones before them.

The story’s emphasis on the mother is most evident in terms of her loyalty towards sustaining family inheritance, as first observed on Dee’s change of name: “Well”, I say. “Dee”. “No, mama,” she says. “Not ‘Dee’, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!”… “You know as well as me you was named after your Aunt Dicie,” I said. Dicie is my sister. She named Dee. We called her “Big Dee” after Dee was born (par 25-26, 29).

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This alteration of identity though the use of another name reveals the reality of those African-Americans, called collectively as the Black Power Movement, who want to refute their relationship to the American heritage. As Dee explains, “She’s dead,” Wangero said. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (par. 28), speaks a lot of their conviction to eliminate that sense of tagged affiliation given that the appellation “Dee” embodies the Americans as oppressors, while “Wangero” is solely African in nature and sound.

Stressing the harm on this type of heritage rejection through alteration of a name in the story, is reflected through the mother’s acceptance as she points out, “Why shouldn’t I?” I asked. “If that’s what you want us to call you, we’ll call you.” (par. 40). Tolerance, because of biased circumstance on their relationship, can be a small step towards gradual riddance of African-American heritage. Furthermore, her lenience on Dee’s change of name to Wangero is validated through this narration:

Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are suddenly brought together on a TV program of this sort. Out of a dark and soft seated limousine I am ushered into a bright room filled with many people. There I meet a smiling, gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine girl I have. Then we are on the stage and Dee is embracing me with tears in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers (par.4).

This vividly accentuates the longing of a mother for her daughter and thus justifies her acceptance with her name, although it rejects the heritage she holds. Notwithstanding their bittersweet relationship, the mother becomes considerate of Dee’s arrival in their home even on the way she dresses up:

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…The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it (par. 21).

This type of small-scale toleration makes it harmful if consistently practiced within a household setting since it branches out slowly to society as a basic unit, until the connection of American heritage will no longer be existing.

Another evident emphasis on the mother’s stronghold of heritage is on the three heirlooms: chute top, dasher and quilts. Dee wants to claim these possessions to be set as objects of attraction given its aesthetic antiquity, as she claims: “[I] can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table”, she said, sliding a plate over the chute, “and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher.” (par. 54). This type of shallow view on heritage follows an opposing perspective from her mother,

When [Dee] finished wrapping the dasher the handle stuck out. I took it for a moment in my hands. You didn’t even have 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 were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was a beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived (par.55).

More than just beauty, the dasher itself is a symbol for all of her loved ones and predecessors who made and use them in their lifetime (White). Her undying appreciation is a reflection of how much she values them the way she places great importance to the object, as an inherited possession. The quilt becomes the center of conflict, cresting the change on her mother’s tolerance as she points out,

[I] did something I never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open (par. 77).

Laying emphasis on the use of “Miss Wangero”, Dee is tested as someone who is educated, determined and cannot be thwarted. This signals the defiance of her mother from the lenience she imposed when her eldest pronounced her change of name and on her claiming of the dasher into a mere design. Synthesizing down the facets of reality, Walker challenges the Black Power Movement, through the character of Dee, that does not acknowledge, understand and respect the African-Americans who suffered unbearable adversities on their struggle to survive on an aggressive environment (White). This impulsive black egotism is narrated by the mother towards Wangero’s character in the story:

[S]he used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice…She pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand (par.11).

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Themes Of Heritage And National Identity In Alice Walker’s Everyday Use [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 15 [cited 2021 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/themes-of-heritage-and-national-identity-in-alice-walkers-everyday-use/
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