Alice Walker conveys her passionate feelings about preserving and valuing the African-American culture and heritage. In her short story, “Everyday Use,” Walker points out and expresses the extreme importance of culture and heritage. She utilizes the story of a mother, Mama, and her two daughters, Dee, also known as Wangero, and Maggie, to explain how important culture and heritage are and the significance of upholding that importance. In the 1860s, when the story takes place, is a time when some African-Americans become a part of groups, such as the black nationalists. The story is told through the eyes of Mama, who realizes how Dee, who becomes a member of the black nationalists, and Maggie truly feel about their culture and heritage and the obvious difference between their views. In “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker uses symbolism, character development, and setting to portray the importance of respecting and maintaining the significant value and true meaning of African-American culture and heritage.
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In “Everyday Use,” Walker uses items in Mama’s house that represent culture and heritage. Dee arrives at her mother’s house and views the house as a symbol of her upbringing. The first items that Dee begins noticing are the benches. While admiring the benches, Dee says, “You can feel the rump prints” (Walker 112). Walker intentionally wants the reader to know that the benches have been in home for years. Due to this fact, the benches represent the characters’ past. Another symbol that Walker uses is the butter churn and dash. When speaking of these items, Walker writes, “there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood” (112). She wants to get the point across that there is history behind the butter dash. Walker continues on describing the dash saying that it was made of “beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived” (112). The details of the dash show the history, and the fact that remembering the history indicates that Walker values heritage. With both of these items, Walker gives the story behind them, which represents her appreciation of knowing the history behind things. David Cowart says, “Walker is surely sympathetic to someone who seems to recognize the need to preserve the often fragile artifacts of the African American past” (24). In other words, the items, such as the admiration of the benches, the butter churn, and dasher, are items that represent African American traditions. Alice Walker feels a need to explain the importance of respecting the African American culture and heritage and uses these everyday items to symbolize that importance.
Along with the benches, the butter churn, and dasher, the quilts evidently symbolize African American culture and heritage. The quilts are the most significant symbol that Walker uses in “Everyday Use.” When Dee brings the quilts out, Walker goes into comprehensive details about just what these quilts represent. Walker says, “in both of [the quilts] were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War” (113). The quilts represent the entire past of the family that dates back to the days of the Civil War. They are extremely important to their culture, and not only represent the past, but also represent the work of their family members. Maria Lauret agrees when she says that the quilts represent “the black woman’s tradition of creative yet useful needlework” (110). In other words, the quilts are symbols of African American tradition. Quilting is a custom that women would do to pass time, and eventually, the quilts are used and needed as a necessity to keep people warm in the winter. Although some people, such as Dee, see the quilts as something that should be used as decoration, Walker believes the quilts are not for that purpose. “The quilt ‘represents’ [Walker’s] story, history, and tradition, binding women, and men, to the past and the past to the present” (Whitsitt 443). In other words, Walker uses these quilts as symbols to show the appreciation and respect of African American culture, including herself. Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Charlotte Pierce-Baker agree when they say, “quilts, in their patched and many-colored glory offer not a counter to tradition, but, in fact, an instance of the only legitimate tradition of ‘the people’ that exists” (311). In other words, the quilts in “Everyday Use” are one of the only symbols that represent traditions during that time era. In “Everyday Use,” the quilts and the scene with the quilts are the most significant part in the story, and Walker uses the quilts to portray the traditions of African-American heritage.
Walker uses character development to show the appreciation she has towards maintaining and respecting the African American culture and heritage. Out of the three main characters, Mama, shows the most change in character. Mama starts off the story discussing her daughters. She views Dee as the prettier and smarter daughter. She seems to think highly of Dee. She says, “[Maggie] thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that ‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say to her” (Walker 109). Mama says this because she knows that Dee always gets everything she desires, and no one ever denies her anything, including Mama. Mama knows that Dee has eccentric ways and is not necessarily like her or Maggie, but she in some ways looks up to Dee and yearns for Dee to accept her. Tuten agrees by saying, “Mama’s distaste for Dee’s egotism is tempered by her desire to be respected by her daughter” (125). Mama’s character changes during the quilt scene, as she realizes that Maggie shares the appreciation of culture and heritage, and Dee’s appreciation is entirely different from theirs. During the quilt scene, Dee is practically demanding Mama to give her the quilts, and Mama says, “when I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet” (Walker 113). In other words, the truth hits Mama like lightning. The truth is that the daughter that she has always put on a pedestal is in reality the daughter that does not know or understands the true appreciation of African American culture. Tuten says the story is ultimately about “Mama’s awakening to one daughter’s superficiality and to the other’s deep-seated understanding of heritage” (125). In “Everyday Use,” Walker uses Mama’s change in how she views her daughters to help defend her point, which is the importance of upholding the values and traditions in the African American culture.
Although the characters of Dee and Maggie do not change during the present tense of the story, they do change in the beginning of the story. Walker uses this change of the characters to help get her point across about the importance of heritage and the different views that people may have. Dee’s views change when she moves away. Dee’s obvious change is when she changes her name to Wangero, and her reasoning behind it is that “[she] couldn’t bear [her name] any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker111). Since the beginning, Dee is different, but after she moves and joins a black nationalist group, her change in her appreciation for culture and heritage is evident. She views items from her upbringing as something that she wants to hang and display in her home. She forgets the true meaning of these items. Cowart agrees by saying, “in her name, her clothes, her hair, her sunglasses, her patronizing speech, and her black Muslim companion, Wangero proclaims a deplorable degree of alienation from her rural origins and family” (22). Walker uses Dee to show one view of heritage and uses Maggie to show the other view. Maggie, unlike Dee, values her heritage. She knows the history of everything. In addition, Maggie also appreciates the history. Maggie does not have the looks or the brains like Dee, but she carries with her something more valuable, which is the respect that she has for her culture and heritage and Mama realizes this of Maggie. When Dee says that Maggie will use the quilts for “everyday use,” Mama knows she will and says, “she can always make some more, Maggie knows how to quilt” (Walker 113). In other words, Mama knows that Maggie has the knowledge and the heart to carry the traditions that she passes to her daughters. “Maggie is the arisen goddess of Walker’s story; she is the sacred figure who bears the scarifications of experience and knows how to convert patches into robustly patterned and beautifully quilted wholes” (Baker and Pierce-Baker 314). Both characters, Dee and Maggie have changes throughout the story, and Walker uses their character development to show her appreciation of African American culture and heritage.
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In “Everyday Use,” Walker utilizes the importance of setting to send the message that it is essential to appreciate the value of culture and heritage. Walker takes the time to go into extreme detail describing the yard at the beginning of the story. “A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room” (Walker 108). The yard is something that comes with the house, and it is a place that the owners can congregate and spend time, even if it is just gazing into the sunset. People who do not have money tend to value the simple things in life, and these simple things eventually become a major part of their lives. Cowart says, “a paragon of meaningful simplicity, this yard” (25). Walker begins the story with the yard and ends the story with the characters outside on their yard. The yard is important to the story because like the quilt the yard is used to show the importance of heritage and “the cultural something produced out of nothing by people lacking everything” (Cowart 24-5). Walker understands and values where she comes from, and she knows that people, who live in poverty, take pride in the little possessions that they have, such as a front yard. In “Everyday Use,” Walker uses setting to explain the value of appreciating heritage and traditions of African Americans.
In conclusion, Alice Walker employs symbolism, character development, and symbolism to express her own feelings of culture and heritage, which is the extreme importance of maintaining and respecting the strong value of family and traditions. The symbols of the benches, the butter churn, the dash, and the quilts help represent the history of African American traditions. The character development of Mama, Dee, and Maggie help to show the different points of views that one may have about heritage, and Mama’s ultimate eye opener of discovering which daughter values the same things as her in the same way. The change in Mama allows her to stand up to a daughter in a way that she has before. The setting of the yard aids in telling the story behind the culture and heritage. Walker defends her position on the extreme importance of upholding and respecting the value of African American culture and heritage.
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