In no way does one’s culture and heritage define who we are. Nevertheless, what defines us? Everyday Use is a short story authored by Alice Walker, who portrays the power of an African woman in a setting of family and heritage conflict. Mrs. Johnson, together with her daughters Maggie and Dee, represent the heritage and cultural conflicts. On the one hand, Mrs. Johnson and Maggie adhere to the traditional black culture while Dee ventures into a new and different route as she even changes her name in the process (Walker, 1973). These three characters have different opinions concerning the value and essence of the heirlooms and other cultural artifacts. Everyday Use is a short story that shows the conflicts of cultural and heritage roots, portrays family disputes and conflict, and describes materialism as the prominent themes.
Primarily, cultural and heritage conflict and roots form the most critical part of the short story, whereby the cultural roots of each character are described. In addition, these cultural and heritage differences result in other minor themes such as family conflict and the aspect of materialism in Dee, one of the characters. In the short story, Dee’s mother and Maggie are portrayed to remain close to their family traditions and cultures. However, Dee chooses to venture more deeply into the African cultural roots, which results in a change of name from Dee to Wangero. Dee says, “No, Mama,” she says. “Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!” (Walker, 1973). When asked the reason for the name change, she further adds that Dee is dead, and she cannot bear to use the name given to her by oppressors. While Dee explains her reason to defy her name, her mother explains to her that, she was named after her aunt Dicie, who happened to be named after their grandmother Dee. This shows that Dee’s mother values her family tradition as she decided to name her daughter after their relatives and loved ones
The difference in cultural roots and heritage between Dee and her mother result in family conflict or feud. This is seen when Dee believes that the family heirlooms should belong to her as they illustrate her identity as an African American. They end up having different opinions concerning cultural preservation, as Dee feels the heirlooms should be displayed as artistic to show their aesthetic value while Dee’s mother cherishes the heirlooms as they remind them of their loved ones and family culture (Walker, 1973). Dee’s mother does not agree with Dee on displaying the family objects showing their value but indicates that the family objects are infused with the presence of their owners and makers. She argues that they are for ‘Everyday use’ and not for display. Dee has the full desire to have the quilts, which the mother states that they are intended for Maggie during her marriage. “I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas (Walker, 1973).” Dee claims that they are supposed to be given to her since she embraces her identity fully, wants to display them, and show their artwork and beautiful handiwork. Concisely, Everyday Use is a short story that revolves around the cultural roots and heritage of the characters.
Secondly, Everyday Use shows a family feud or conflict regarding their cultural origins and heritage. The family of three does not agree on the same ideas when it comes to cultural believes, objects, and values. Dee’s opinions and ideas are contrary to those of her mother and sister. For instance, Dee’s mother and Maggie are portrayed to remain close to their family traditions and cultures. However, Dee chooses to venture more deeply into African cultural roots. When referring to the family objects, Maggie and her mother view them as a lived experience and reminder of their family’s loved ones (Walker, 1973). The objects bring about the presence of their loved ones, which were made by grandpa Ezra and grandma during the civil war. Maggie has an attachment with the family objects, as she knows how to quilt, where Grandmother Dee and Big Dee taught her. It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee, who taught her how to quilt herself. Thus, for Maggie and her mother, these objects are reminders of specific people in her life while living the experience when the narrator states, “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts.” Maggie understands her heritage, history, and the value of the family objects (Walker, 1973).
However, when Dee’s mother does not give the quilts to Dee, she seems embarrassed by her rural roots, furious and angered. Besides, she lacks the emotional connections with the objects, as is the case with Maggie. Dee feels the heirlooms should be displayed as artistic to show their aesthetic value. The main family feud is brought out by the emotional attachment of Maggie and her mother towards the family objects, and Dee’s pride, scornful nature, and lack of possession of the family objects.
Thirdly, the theme of materialism is prevalent in the short story, especially with Dee. Dee is seen to feel ashamed of her family cultures, artifacts, and heritage, yet she claims she understands her cultural roots. In addition, Dee lacks an adequate understanding of her heritage, whereby she sees the family objects as aesthetic objects of value than seeing them as symbols of oppression. At one point, the mother shows how Dee saw the family objects to be old fashioned and out of style. I didn’t want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told they were old-fashioned, out of style (Walker, 1973).” Later on, she begins to show the value and pricelessness of the same objects, showing a lack of adequate understanding.
Dee’s love for the family object and her believe they should be displayed to show their artwork and fine handiwork highlights materialistic nature in her. It does not occur to her that these objects are symbols of oppression, which were made by her family members. This is because they could not afford to buy them. Her admiration does not reflect her value for her heritage but the value of handmade objects (Walker, 1973). Besides, when offered quilt while going to college, she declined, calling them old fashioned and out of style. This shows Dee does not appreciate the family objects as a symbol of cultural heritage but out of materialism.
When Dee arrives, the narrator seems to be shocked as she describes Dee to be adorned with new clothes and jewelry that she uses to make a statement. “Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves her arm up to shake the folds of the dress out of her armpits (Walker, 1973).” Dee’s mother describes Dee as she approaches them from the car in a manner that shows, she cares more about her appearance and ‘city’ living than her rural roots.
Everyday Use is a short story that shows the struggles of heritage and ascribing to one’s cultural roots. The narrator and authors use the story to explain the lack of understanding some people have on their cultural roots that they end up instigating family feuds and self-identity disillusion. Everyday Use uses the central theme of heritage and cultural root conflict to develop smaller ideas that result from it. It is through the lack of adequate understanding of Dee’s culture that the themes of materialism and family feuds develop and manifest. Better still, do our cultural roots define Use, describe us, or shape any aspects of our lives? This question remains unanswered as, through Dee, the dilemma lives.
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