In the short story Everyday Use, author Alice Walker gives us an insightful look at the way people wrestle with their heritage, and a fascinating example of how far some will go to shun theirs. Walker was the child of sharecroppers in rural Georgia, and suffered a blinding injury to her right eye when still young, causing her to become shy and withdrawn, much like the character of Maggie in this story.
The story is set in the rural United States of the 1970s, probably in Georgia. It is a vignette from the lives of the Johnson family, consisting of a mother and her two daughters. One of the daughters is the aforementioned Maggie, who was injured in a house fire and has been tiptoeing through life ever since, clinging to her mother for security. Her older sister is Dee, who grew up with a grace and natural beauty that was not present in her mother and sister. “Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure…Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style…Impressed with her (Dee) they (her friends) worshiped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye.” She also grew up determined to have more and better than the farm life her mother and sister were so willing to accept.
We’re told that when her childhood home burned down (burning and scarring Maggie) Dee was unmoved, as she had always hated the house and what it symbolized to her. “I see her (Dee) standing under the sweet gum tree she used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house fall in toward the red-hot brick chimney. Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She hated that house that much.” Perhaps with the destruction of the house, Dee thought that her past, her roots, were also being destroyed. Dee rejected the rustic lifestyle of her home, and instead yearned for finer things. “Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave me…At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was.”
One lesson Dee learned early was that to act sophisticated around the farm was not enough. As a teenager she lost a boy to a girl from the city, and this undoubtedly left a mark as real as her sister’s scars, one that was burned deep into Dee’s heart. “When she was courting Jimmy T she didn’t have much time to pay us, but turned all of her faultfinding power on him. He flew (author’s italics) to marry a cheap city girl from a family of ignorant flashy people.”
After this Dee seemed determined to put as much distance between herself and home as possible. Dee’s mother (along with the local church) raised enough money to send Dee away to school at Augusta, and Dee took this opportunity to shun the people who had made the sacrifices necessary for her to have the nice things in life.
While Dee was brazen about the world around her (“Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature.”), at the same time she was embarrassed by her family and did everything she could to cordon them off from her life. After graduating from school, she disappeared for some time, vowing to catch up with her mother and sister in the future (“She (Dee) wrote me (mother) once that no matter where we ‘choose’ to live, she will manage to come see us.”) Even the word “choose” seems to indicate a condemnation of a lifestyle that Dee obviously thinks her mother could “choose” to elevate.
When Dee arrives for her visit, we see that she has dressed in a way that is entirely inappropriate for the setting (“A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes…Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves…”) Dee has intentionally selected attire that says “I am a visitor to this place. I do not belong here.” Perhaps she has done this to create a psychological barrier between herself and the circumstances of her youth.
The person she has selected to travel with is a vegetarian Muslim, which makes another statement about the company she prefers to keep at this point in her life (“…a short, stocky man. Hair is all over his head a foot long and hanging from his chin like a kinky mule tail...It looks like Asalamalakim [a name the mother assigns him based on his Muslim greeting to her] wants to shake hands but wants to do it fancy.”). He also has taken on a façade of sorts, playing at being a Muslim, but not wanting to live the life of the authentic Muslims that reside in the area (“‘You must belong to those beef-cattle peoples down the road,’ I said. They said ‘Asalamalakim’ when they met you, too, but they didn’t shake hands. Always too busy: feeding the cattle, fixing the fences, putting up salt-lick shelters, throwing down hay…Hakim-a-barber [the name he actually calls himself] said, ‘I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle are not my style.’”)
Having reentered the world of her youth, Dee and her friend greet her mother and sister in foreign tongues, again underlining her desire to be seen as an alien. Adding to the effect, Dee announces that she no longer goes by the name Dee, but now identifies herself as Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, which is about as far as the human tongue can get from “Dee Johnson”. Also, it appears that each of these three names is an anglicized mangling of an authentic East African name, indicating that her commitment to genuine African issues is superficial at best. When her mother inquires as to her reasons for the name change, Wangero attacks the name Dee as a symbol of racism (“‘I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.’”). Wangero’s mother identifies the inspiration for the name “Dee” as Aunt Dicie, and Grandma Dee before her, but this has no effect on Wangero, who would rather identify herself with a continent she has never visited than with a family whose blood flows through her veins. Such is the totality of her rejection of her roots.
Wangero expresses giddy delight at the dilapidated old furnishings in her mother’s home, and the visit quickly degenerates into a relic hunt, as she asks her mother if she can take the top of an old butter churn back with her, not to use, but to display in her urban home (“‘I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,’”). Now that Wangero is safely insulated from any embarrassment that might have come from her roots, she is free to view her heritage as quaint, like some artifact from an ancient civilization meant to be displayed in a case for the amusement of sophisticated people like herself. She wants items that she can tell mocking stories about during cocktail parties where the greatness of Africa is discussed by people who have never been there. The items will also serve as a measurement of her own achievement, a yardstick that will impress her city friends with just how far Wangero has come from her horrible, pathetic upbringing.
For her long-suffering mother, the breaking point comes when Wangero begins rummaging through an old trunk, looking for and finding quilts that have been added to and passed down through the family for generations, dating back to the Civil War. The quilts represent the history of the Johnson family, stitched together one square at a time, and is a metaphor for the dignity of the family legacy. Wangero wants to take them far away to the city and hang them on the wall, again as an amusing conversation-starter that would inevitably lead into a discussion of Wangero’s terribly slow, backwards farming family. She has no intention of ever using the quilts, even though that’s what their creators wanted; no, for Wangero, these too are hokey talismans of a lost civilization.
It is here that Wangero’s mother says no, something that Wangero doesn’t hear much (“…no is a word the world never learned to say to her.”). For the mother, the quilts are not a relic, but a part of who she is, and a part of who Maggie is. She wants Maggie to have them, because she’ll treat them with the dignity they deserve, and she’ll look upon them lovingly instead of condescendingly. For them, the heritage is real, not something for display cases in city apartments. Moreover, they are comfortable with who they are and where they came from, whereas Wangero has spent a lifetime trying to reinvent herself, to deny her heritage.
Ironically, as the story closes, a defeated Wangero accuses them of not understanding their heritage, and follows that up with a rejection of that same heritage (“‘It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.’”). She then places huge sunglasses on her face, as if to hide everything that she is from the world, which indicates that even after all she’s done to separate herself from her background, she’s still uncomfortable with the persona she’s created. One gets the impression that Dee/Wangero will never be able to accept who she is, and will be forever running from this fad to that, looking for the next costume with which to play dress up.
The final image we are left with is of the mother and Maggie relaxing in their world, completely at ease with their lives (“And then the two of us just sat there enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.”), in contrast to their wandering sister, who it seems will never be at peace.
The title of the story, Everyday Use, refers to the living heritage of the Johnson family, a heritage that is still in “everyday use”, and is not yet ready to be placed in a hermetically sealed jar for the contemplation of puzzled anthropologists, no matter what Wangero would like.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction. Eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006. 655.