Message ten or twelve years ago, Maggie
Message Of Family Heritage In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” the message about the preservation of heritage, specifically African-American heritage, is very clear. It is obvious that Walker believes that a person’s heritage should be a living, dynamic part of the culture from which it arose and not a frozen timepiece only to be observed from a distance.
There are two main approaches to heritage preservation depicted by the characters in this story. The narrator, a middle-aged African-American woman, and her youngest daughter Maggie, are in agreement with Walker. To them, their family heritage is everything around them that is involved in their everyday lives and everything that was involved in the lives of their ancestors. To Dee, the narrator’s oldest daughter, heritage is the past – something to frame or hang on the wall, a mere artistic, aesthetic reminder of her family history.
Walker depicts Dee’s view of family heritage as being one of confusion and lack of understanding. The differences in attitude that Dee and Maggie portray about their heritage are seen early in the story. When the family’s house burned down ten or twelve years ago, Maggie was deeply affected by the tragedy of losing her home where she grew up.
As her mother describes, “She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground” (409). Dee, on the other hand, had hated the house. Her mother had wanted to ask her, “Why don’t you dance around the ashes?” (409). Dee did not hold any significance in the home where she had grown up. In her confusion about her heritage, it was just a house to her.
Another example of Dee’s confusion about her own African-American heritage is expressed when she announces to her mother and sister that she has changed her name to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.” When her mother questions her about the change, Dee says, “I couldn’t bear it any longer being named after the people who oppress me” (411).According to her mother, the name has been in the family since before the Civil War and most likely represents family unity to her.
However, Dee does not realize that. Apparently, she believes that by changing her name she is expressing solidarity with her African ancestors and rejecting the oppression implied by the taking on of American names by black slaves.Commenting on the way Dee is acting when they sit down to eat, her mother says, “Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t afford to buy chairs” (411).
Dee seems to be so interested in all of the little household items that her family still uses. When she sees the top to the butter churn that her Uncle whittled out of a tree, she wants to keep it and use it a centerpiece for her alcove table. Also, Dee says, “I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher” (412).These items are a part of life for Maggie and her mother, but to Dee they are merely pieces for decoration. Interestingly enough, Maggie knows exactly whom in her family made the items that Dee is claiming for house decorations. She informs Dee that, “Aunt Dee ‘s first husband whittled that dashHis name was Henry, but they called him Stash” (412). The girls’ mother comments earlier in the story that “Maggie knows she’s not bright.
Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by” (409). However, unlike her older sister, she understands her family heritage and the importance of it in her life. The strongest example of Dee’s confusion and of Walker’s belief that a family’s heritage should be alive and not frozen in time is at the end of the story.
Dee finds the two quilts that had been pieced together by many generations of her family, and she wants to keep them. Her mother says, “In both of them 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 blue faded piecefrom Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War” (412). It is obvious that these quilts, which have become an heirloom, not only represent the family, but are an integral part of the family.However, Dee covets the quilts only for their aesthetic value.
“But they’re priceless!” (413), she exclaims to her mother when she finds out that her mother has already promised them to Maggie. Dee argues that Maggie is “backward enough to put them to everyday use” (413). Her mother responds to Dee’s argument by saying, “I reckon she wouldI hope she will” (413). Indeed, this is how Maggie views the quilts.
She values them for what they mean to her as an individual. Obviously, her mother also feels this way about the quilts. When the girls’ mother asks Dee what she would do with the quilts, Dee says that she would hang them up. Again, Dee is showing her lack of understanding of her family’s heritage.
By hanging the quilts, she would be symbolically distancing her past and her heritage from her present life. If she were to put them to everyday use, like Maggie would probably do, she would be admitting her status as a member of her old-fashioned oppressed African-American family. When Maggie shyly says that Dee can have the quilts because she “can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts” (413), her mother gets a strong feeling within her. She says that it is ” like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout” (413). She takes the quilts from Dee’s hands and puts them in Maggie’s lap.
Obviously, Dee is upset by this and tells her mother, “You just don’t understandyour heritage” (413). That comment is somewhat ironic since it appears to be Dee who does not understand what family heritage is all about. Walker’s view is very clear at the end of the story.
By Dee wanting to hang the family heirloom on the wall to look at from a distance, she is alienating herself from her family heritage. That is exactly what Walker thinks is the wrong thing to do. Walker would prefer the quilts to be used and integrated into daily life, like Maggie and her mother prefer. The same idea applies to all of the other household items that Dee has her eye on: the churn top, the dasher, and the benches for the table that her daddy made. They all are a part of life for Maggie and her mother. Walker believes that the only value that they hold for Dee is that they would be good trinkets to show off in her house.By using the quilts in this symbolic way, Walker is making the point that family heirlooms can only have meaning if they remain connected to the culture they sprang from – in essence, to be put to “Everyday Use.” Words/ Pages : 1,233 / 24