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|1973 (as part of In Love and Trouble)|
"Everyday Use" is a widely studied and frequently anthologized short story by Alice Walker. It was first published in 1973 as part of Walker's short story collection In Love and Trouble.
The short story is told in first person by "Mama", an African-American woman living in the Deep South with one of her two daughters. The story follows the differences between Mrs. Johnson and her shy younger daughter Maggie, who both still adhere to traditional black culture in the rural South, and her educated, successful daughter Dee, or "Wangero" as she prefers to be called, who takes a different route to reclaiming her cultural identity.
A film version was released in 2005.
The story opens on Mama waiting in the yard for her oldest daughter, Dee’s, return. She reflects on the differences between Dee and Maggie, her youngest daughter, and knows that Maggie will be anxious around Dee and self-conscious. Maggie was burned in a house fire that happened more than a decade ago, where Mama carried her out in her arms as Dee watched the house burn, but showed no emotion. The narrator continues to paint a picture of Maggie as helpless and rather awkward, whereas Dee is beautiful and seems to have had an easier time in life.
Dee left home to pursue an education in Augusta, afforded to her by Mama and the community’s fund raising efforts. Mama never attended school past second grade, and Maggie has a very limited reading ability, so Dee’s education is a stark difference and Mama seems to feel that starkness, commenting, “like dimwits, we seemed about to understand”. Mama discusses the physical differences between the three: her own manly looks, Maggie’s timid disposition, and Dee’s own nice hair, full figure, and stylish way of dress.
When Dee finally arrives, she has also brought with her a man whom Mama refers to as Hakim-a-barber. Mama and Maggie are a little taken aback by Dee's wild-looking outfit and her African greeting to them. Dee takes photos of Mama and Maggie in front of the house, and the greetings are stiff and unfamiliar. Dee informs her mother that she has now changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo in order to protest the oppression and cultural white washing Black Americans faced. Mama rejects this, telling Dee she was named after her Aunt Dicie, who in turn was named after Grandma Dee, and that the name went on through the generations. Dee gives Mama the option of not using her new name and Mama concludes that Hakim-a-barber must be related to a family of Muslims down the road. Hakim-a-barber says he accepts some of the doctrines of his beef-raising family, but is not interested in farming or herding as a profession.
Mama does not know whether Hakim-a-barber and Dee are married, and does not ask. Hakim-a-barber has a restricted diet to follow, but Dee digs in to the food Mama made. She begins asking for things around the house, like the top of a butter churn, and eventually she asks for two quilts as well. This quilt in particular is one that Mama had promised to Maggie, and Dee’s persistence frustrates Mama and they get into an argument. Dee feels that by using the quilt as a normal item, in “everyday use”, the quilt will be ruined and the cultural importance will be lost. Mama would rather the item be used practically by her family and be ruined than have it sit on a shelf or be hung on a wall as a piece of art, and as Dee readies to leave, she tells Mama that Mama doesn’t understand her own heritage. She adds that Mama should try and improve, and that there is a new path for Black Americans to follow. Maggie and Mama sit in the yard after watching them drive off until bedtime.
- Dee – She is an educated African-American woman and the eldest daughter of Mama. She seeks to embrace her cultural identity through changing her name from Dee to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo (an African name), marrying a Muslim man, and acquiring artifacts from Mama's house to put on display, an approach that puts her at odds with Mama and Maggie. She is very physically beautiful and is described as having a great sense of style.
- Mama – She is described as a "large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands." She enjoys her lifestyle (especially milking cows) and did not receive an education past second grade.
- Maggie – Described by Mama as dull and unattractive, the youngest daughter Maggie has burn scars and marks from the burning down of their prior home, and is very nervous and self-conscious because of it. She leads a simple and traditional life with her mother in the South while her elder sister, Dee, is away at school. She has very limited reading ability, unlike her sister Dee.
- Hakim-a-barber - Dee’s partner, he is referred to as "Asalamalakim", which is a Muslim greeting, by Mama throughout the story because he is Muslim. Eventually he tells Mama to call him "Hakim-a-barber" due to Mama being unable to pronounce his actual name. He is short and stocky and has long hair that reaches his waist and a long, bushy beard. We do not learn in the story whether they are dating, engaged, or married.
One of the primary themes of "Everyday Use," is the idea of a person's relationship to their culture. In the story, Dee's mother remained close to immediate family traditions, while Dee herself chose to search more deeply into her African roots. Because of her different mindset, she does not have the same ideals as Mama and Maggie, particularly in regard to cultural preservation and the best way to go about it. In Mama’s mind, Maggie learning to make her own quilt is preserving the culture – in Dee’s, it is preserving the quilt itself.
Point of view
Because this story is told in first-person the readers "watch" the story unfold through the eyes and opinions of Mama. As Maggie and Mama wait for Dee to arrive for a visit Mama's mind wanders with various thoughts and memories of Dee, giving the audience an impartial view of Dee as being self centered and uncaring. Due to the fact that readers are getting only one view point it is uncertain if Dee truly does exhibit these characteristics or if it is only Mama's opinion of the eldest daughter that is being forced upon us. It is thought by some that Mama does not judge Dee, nor Maggie, accurately due to Mama's own insecurities. This is evidenced during Mama's daydream of Dee and herself on an imaginary popular talk show under the context of children who have "made it". Mama notes being over weight and rough around the edges and eludes to the fact that Dee is ashamed of Mama's appearance. As Mama continues to narrate the story the audience continues to get a sense of Dee's snobbish personality, along with moments of doubt as readers see glimpses of Mamas own short comings. As the story concludes the audience is left with the vision of Mama and Maggie remaining alone, once again, on the front lawn; happy to be rid of Dee and the exhausting perfection as they bask in the simplicity of each other and the straight forward life that has been built.
In the essay "'Everyday Use' and the Black Power Movement" by Barbara T. Christian, the story is discussed in reference to slavery and the black power movement. The characters in the story focus a lot on African culture and heritage. Traditional African clothing is described throughout the story, and this is a symbol of the family's heritage. The mentioning of changing names relates back to slavery as well; the characters were trying to forget about their slave names, and think of more traditional names to remember their culture and "[affirm] their African roots."
On the other hand, in the essay "'Everyday Use' as a Portrait of the Artist" by Mary Helen Washington, the story is looked at from a more artistic and cultural perspective. The essay describes Dee as an artist who "returns home...in order to collect the material," which indicates that Dee comes home for a deeper understanding of her African culture. Although she changes her name from Dee to a more Native African name and wears African clothing, she lacks real knowledge of her culture. Because of this, Mama chooses Maggie over Dee to take the quilts, because Maggie shows more appreciation and knowledge of their culture and as she said in the story was involved in the making of those quilts whereas Dee had no part in.
In the essay “Stylish vs. Sacred in “Everyday Use” written by Houston A. Baker and Charlotte Pierce-Baker Dee or Wangero is called a “goddess”. After highlighting a few passages from the story, it is mentions that Dee/ Wangero has join the black nationalists of the 1960s and 1970s and she shows it by changing both her name and her style. The essay doesn’t see Dee/ Wangero as an activist of that cause but as someone being “manipulated by the style-makers” as illustrated by the scene in which she described the quilt, for which she passionately fought for later in the story, as “old-fashioned and out of style”.
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One symbol found in this short story is the quilt. The quilt itself is a very meaningful item in the sense that it has history in it. It includes clothes that Dee's great grandma used to wear and pieces of uniforms that Dee's great grandpa wore during the Civil War. However, it also symbolizes value in Negro-American experience. The quilt additionally adds to the idea of creative activities women came up with to pass down history from generation to generation as a part of their heritage.
Another symbol found in “Everyday Use” is the yard. The yard plays an important role in the story, and is described as “an extended living room”. Mama and Maggie have both tidied up the yard in preparation of Dee’s visit, and sit out in the yard for hours, even after Dee’s departure. The yard seems to be a place to think for Mama, where she can imagine herself being someone more conventionally attractive than she actually is, but also remember just how much she has done for her family.
In the African-American community, women have engaged in the tradition of quilting since they were brought to America as slaves. Quilting requires sewing pieces of cloth together to create a coverlet that functions as both a piece of art and a household item. African-American women, often regarded as voiceless ‘mule(s) of the world’, inherited such creative legacies from maternal ancestors and their quilts have come to represent black heritage. The voices of African-American women have been stitched into their quilts, providing an account of their cultural past. As Sam Whitsitt observes, the quilt reflects the experiences of African-American women: the quilt is a symbol reflective of ‘herstory, history, and tradition’. The self-expression involved in quilt-making allowed women to take control of their lives through the only medium society permitted them to use. The communal nature of quilting strengthened the bonds of sisterhood and helped to move marginalised women from enslavement to empowerment. Quilting allowed these women to assert control over the colonial practice of slavery as enforced by white hegemony. Historically, products such as cotton and indigo dye were acquired as a result of black oppression. By sewing cotton into their quilts, African-American slaves formed a bond with nature, which replaced the hegemonic relationship enforced by slavery.
Black slaves often attended communal Quilting Bees, which offered these oppressed women the opportunity to create social bonds unsupervised. Thus, quilting became a symbol of sisterly solidarity for African-American slaves. Additionally, quilting functioned as a response to cultural and political change, allowing opportunity for political debate. Black women used quilting as a source of activism: their quilts often depicted anti-slavery slogans. However, quilting also came to represent the hegemony of patriarchal society. Women were often forced to learn to quilt, which became a substitute for the more ‘masculine’ activity of reading and writing.
Quilting features in ‘Everyday Use’ as a symbol of black heritage. Mama Johnson’s quilts symbolise cross-generational female bonding: they were sewn together by Grandma Dee, passed down to and then quilted by Mama and her sister, Big Dee. One quilt even features a piece of the war uniform worn by their Great Grandpa Ezra during the Civil War. These quilts represent the creativity of the sisterhood that created them; however, Mama’s daughters, Maggie and Dee, view them very differently. Dee visits her family, intending to collect the artefacts of her family’s past; she wants to display them in her home with museum-like accuracy. As David Cowart notes, ‘The visitor [Dee] rightly recognizes the quilts as part of a fragile heritage, but she fails to see the extent to which she herself has traduced that heritage.’ The story’s climax, which sees Mama give the quilts to Maggie, rather than Dee, is viewed as representative of the quilts’ functionality. Dee views the quilts as worthy of museum display ("Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!...She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."), whilst Maggie treats them as household items ("I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope [ Maggie puts them to ‘everyday use’]!”). Both Mama and Maggie recognise that the quilt is meant for ‘everyday use’, as practiced by their ancestors.
In critical readings of this article, the largest trend regarding this story has been to criticize Dee and the way she goes about her personal cultural reclamation. However, Matthew Mullins argues in his essay, Antagonized by the Text, Or, It Takes Two to Read Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, that this perspective isn’t necessarily fair. He found in reading and teaching the text, Dee was universally a disliked character, saying that in an epiphany he found in his defense of Dee rather a pitying attitude and concluding that “it was impossible to see how anyone could truly ‘like’ Dee”. This, however, he goes on to point out as not being a direct result of Dee’s actions alone, but rather the framing of her actions in the story. He argues that the text itself is what antagonizes the reader to grow this dislike of Dee: “The first-person narrative voice, the fact that Mrs. Johnson [Mama] is both narrator and character, has an immediate and forceful effect upon our perception of Dee.” Mullins backs this up by quoting another scholar, Wayne Booth, who said in his work The Rhetoric of Fiction, “No narrator […] is simply convincing: he is convincingly decent or mean, brilliant or stupid, informed, intelligent, or muddled. […] we usually find our emotional and intellectual reactions to him as a character affects our reactions to the events he relates.” Mullins points out that if Dee herself, or even Maggie, were the narrators of the story, we would come away with a completely different perspective on probably all of the characters. “The text actively prevents us from identifying with Dee,” and this perspective has shaped the scholarly resources on this text since it came out.
Joe Sarnowski, in his article Destroying to Save: Idealism and Pragmatism in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’, also points out this discrepancy but taking it one step further, arguing that even though it would be naïve to claim Dee doesn’t have faults, she, “more than any other character in the story, identifies and pursues corrective measures against the oppression of African-American society and culture.” Her fault, Sarnowski says, is in not realizing how idealism and pragmatism are “intertwined” and how “privileging one undermines both”.
- "Everyday Use Themes - eNotes.com". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-11-03.
- Farrell, Susan. "Fight vs. Flight: a re-evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'". Literature Resource Center. 35 (2).
- "Everyday Use" (PDF). weebly.com.
- Christian, Barbara (1994). "everyday use" and the black power movement. Pearson. pp. 492–494. ISBN 0-13-458638-7.
- Baker, Houston A.; Pierce-Baker, Charlotte (1985). "Patches: Quilts and Community in Alice Walker's" Everyday Use"". The Southern Review. 21 (3).
- Cash, Floris Barnett (2012-02-22). "Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition" (PDF). The Journal of Negro History. 80: 30–41.
- "SparkNotes: Everyday Use: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols". www.sparknotes.com. Retrieved 2017-04-05.
- Walker, Alice. "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens". Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994): 402.
- Whitsitt, Sam (2000). "In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"". African American Review. 34.3: 443–459 (445).
- Martin, Jennifer (2014). "The Quilt Threads Together Sisterhood, Empowerment and Nature in Alice Walker's The Colour Purple and "Everyday Use"". Journal of Intercultural Disciplines. 14: 27–43 (38).
- Hedges, Elaine (1977). "Quilts and Women's Culture". The Radical Teacher. 4: 7–10 (10).
- Cowart, David (1996). "Heritage and Deracination in Walker's "Everyday Use"". Studies in Short Fiction. 33: 171–183 (172).
- Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use". In Love and Trouble. New York: Harvest Books, 1974): 314–321 (p. 320).
- Mullins, Matthew (May 2013). "Antagonized by the Text, Or, It Takes Two to Read Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'". Journal of the Southern Comparative Literature Association. 37: 37–53. Retrieved November 28, 2017.
- Sarnowski, Joe (2012). "Destroying to Save: Idealism and Pragmatism in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'". Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature. 48 (3): 269–286. Retrieved November 28, 2017.
- Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Anna Charters. Compact 8th edn. Boston: Bedfor/St. Martin's, 2011. 852–858. Print.
- Whitsitt, Sam. "In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use.'" African American Review 34.3 (2000): 443. Web. October 24, 2011.
- "Everyday Use." sparknotes.com. sparknotes, n.d. Web. October 24, 2011.