Everyday Use


Dee?s Idea of Heritage/Culture
The short story "Everyday Use" is central in Alice Walker?s writing, particularly as it represents her response to the concept of heritage as expressed by the Black political movements of the 60s. "Everyday Use" is found in Alice Walker?s collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble, which was published in 1973 (Walker 73). This was in the prime of the Black Power ideologies when "Black was beautiful", the Afro hairstyle was in fashion and Blacks were seeking their cultural roots in Africa, without knowing too much about the continent or the routes of the Atlantic Slave Trade (Williams 45). I believe Dee has joined the movement of the Cultural Nationalism. The Cultural Nationalists emphasized the development of black art and culture to further black liberation, but were not militantly political, like, for example, the Black Panthers (Macedo 230). The ideas of the Cultural Nationalists often resulted in the vulgarization of black culture, exemplified in the wearing of robes, sandals, hairspray "natural" style, etc (Cultural Nationalism 1-2).
The central theme of the story concerns the way which an individual understands their present life in relation to the traditions of their people and culture. Dee tells her mother and Maggie that they do not understand their "heritage," because they plan to put "priceless" heirloom quilts to "everyday use" (Walker 78). The story makes clear that Dee is equally confused about the nature of her inheritance both from her immediate family and from the larger black tradition.
The matter of Dee's name provides a good example of this confusion. Evidently, Dee has chosen her new name ("Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo") to express solidarity with her African ancestors and to reject the oppression implied by the taking on of American names by black slaves. To her mother, the name "Dee" is symbolic of family unity; after all, she can trace it back to the time of the Civil War. To the mother, these names are significant because they belong to particular beloved individuals (Joy in a Common Setting 1).
Dee's confusion about the meaning of her heritage also emerges in her attitude toward the quilts and other household items. While she now rejects the names of her immediate ancestors, she eagerly values their old handmade goods, such as the hand-carved benches made for the table when the family could not afford to buy chairs. To Dee, artifacts such as the benches or the quilts are strictly aesthetic objects. It never occurs to her that they, too, are symbols of oppression. Her family made these things because they could not afford to buy them. Her admiration for them now seems to reflect a cultural trend toward valuing handmade objects, rather than any sincere interest in her "heritage." After all, when she was offered a quilt before she went away to college, she rejected it as "old-fashioned, out of style (Joy in a Common Setting 1).
Yet, a careful reading of the story will show that Dee is not the only one confused about the heritage of the black woman in the rural South. Although the mother and Maggie are skeptical of Dee, they recognize the limitations of their own lives. The mother has only a second-grade education and admits that she cannot imagine looking a strange white man in the eye. Maggie "knows she is not bright" and walks with a sidelong shuffle. Although their dispositions lead them to make the best of their lives, they admire Dee's fierce pride even as they feel the force of her scorn (Walker 75).
As Dee is rejected of the quilts, she storms out of the house without a word. As I read this, the question of why Dee only comes in order to get some of the family heirlooms and bring back with her Hakim-a-barber. Not only does she want the quilts, but she also wants Grandma Dee's butter dish and Uncle Buddy's churn. Dee does not come to see the house, Mama, or Maggie. When Dee leaves, she does not say good-bye, but exits without a word. This is another insult to her family. By leaving without saying anything she is reinforcing all her action proved earlier in the story.
It is ironic when Dee states to her mama at the end of the story that, "You just don't understand." "What don't I understand?" Mama asks. Dee responds, "Your heritage." Dee really thinks that