Theme Of Heritage, Culture, And Family Values in "Everyday Use"

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When taking a closer look into the culture, heritage, and family values, we often revert to what is special to us. What we do in our childhood affects us, in the long run, every day. Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” does just that by invoking readers into the world of a family that seems tight-knit, but in reality, is not, anymore. We are set to question if they were ever close and challenge the actions and the lives of Mama, Dee, and Maggie in this profound short story. Heritage, culture, family values, relationships, boundaries, and growth are all explored throughout. Southern cultures and attitudes reveal this story to play out in a shocking way that readers might not expect from the author. Instead, the short story gives readers a different view on families, children, and the tough decisions of a loving, caring mother who only wants the best for both of her children. In this essay, we will also analyze the characters of the novel.

The eldest daughter, Dee, is a firecracker of sorts. She never allowed herself to be on the same level as her mother and sister. She always had to be better than them in some way. Walker first suggests this type of personality when describing Dee, “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words…sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice”. By portraying Dee this way, readers can only assume that she sees herself as more valuable and special than her family. She thinks she deserves the world and that she should be babied, given special treatment by both her mother and sister. Dee has always been the one to outshine everyone else. She is determined to show that she can, will be, and is different than her mother and sister. Walker notes, “She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts”. Almost everything she does throughout the short story emphasizes this concept.

When Dee comes to visit her mother and sister in their southern encompassed home, her family realizes that she has changed a lot about herself since going away to college. Readers are given background on Dee, so we know that she has always tended to be the center of attention. This can be observed when Dee first arrives at her mother’s house, “A dress so loud it hurts my eyes…I feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws out”. This certainly does not come as a shock to Mama and Maggie. What does come as a shock is how far Dee is willing to go to disassociate herself from her Southern heritage and roots. Readers learn that Dee has gone as far as changing her name in this turning point of the short story on page six:

“Well,” I say. “Dee.” “No, Mama,” she says. “Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!” “What happened to ‘Dee’?” I wanted to know. “She’s dead,” Wangero said. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.”

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As Mama and Maggie both realize that ‘Dee’, now Wangero, will and has gone to extreme lengths, they are shocked and seem to take a step back from her in their attitudes to come. Dee changing her name to Wangero is just another power move to show her mother and sister that she is better than them. Even though Wangero has demonstrated time and time again that she is transforming herself into someone not associated with her Southern roots, she still comes home with the intent to obtain items that are meaningful to her, Mama, and Maggie. We learn that Wangero has a clean lifestyle back in her own home but wants to showcase certain items to represent where she came from and how they show who she is as a person now. “Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t effort to buy chairs”.

Literary critic Susan Farrell notes, “Once it becomes fashionable to have rural, poverty-stricken roots, Dee wants a record of her humble beginnings”. Readers might be confused about the way Wangero is portrayed as the story continues. We know that she has tried her hardest to rid herself of her southern roots, but now we know that is not the exact case. Author Marianne Hirsch emphasizes this, “…a past she has rejected by leaving and Africanizing her name, but which she now wants to reclaim as fashionable ‘heritage’” Readers can infer that Wangero is trying to use her roots to boost her ego. She only wants meaningful items from her mother’s house so that she can put them on her wall and claim she has “heritage” even though she has been trying to rid it of herself for years now. Farrell continues by stating, “Mama remembers Dee as self-centered and demanding, yes, but she also remembers this daughter as a determined fighter”. Readers will be able to see Wangero’s determination when it comes to wanting to take some of the most special items to the family, their quilts.

The quilts in this story represent so much to each character in the story. However, they mean the most to Mama and Maggie because they are not just using them to boost their egos. They love these quilts because they were hand-made by their Grandma Dee. Grandmothers are very special to a family, so it only makes sense that these quilts would be up for debate about who gets to have them. Literary critic Floris Barnett Cash explains, “Quilts can be used as resources in reconstructing the experiences of African-American women. They provide a record of their cultural and political past”. Maggie and Wangero are two different people. Wangero is “lighter…[has] nicer hair and a fuller figure” (10) than Maggie does. Maggie was burned in a house fire earlier in their lives, so readers can automatically obtain that Maggie and Wangero are not alike in any way.

Having two daughters that are very different from each other can come as a challenge to Mama. She believes that Maggie is more like her, down-to-earth, simple, and easy-going. On the other hand, Wangero is loud, fierce, and determined. These special quilts are supposed to be given to Maggie, but once Wangero gets her hands on them, Mama becomes tentative, “Why don’t you take one or two of the others?”. Mama does not immediately tell Wangero no, which entices readers to question why not. Wangero is trying to take everything that has culture and heritage, so why not save some for themselves? Why let Wangero take items that have no real meaning to her anyway? Hirsch further challenges this by stating, “The daughter who has left her maternal heritage can only reconnect with it intellectually and aesthetically, in ignorance of its daily reality”.

Readers can sense a change about to happen since Wangero is constantly nitpicking and trying to get her hands on everything she wants. Mama is going through a change as well. She has always been accepting, caring, and nurturing towards her. Even though Wangero is tough to deal with, Mama somehow always manages to make it happen without any conflict. As Wangero continues to state her claim to the quilts, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use”. It is here that readers can observe Wangero becoming angry at Mama. She doesn’t understand why she isn’t entitled to these quilts. Mama then steps up and firmly tells Wangero no, when this happens, a shift in the story, the characters, and the tone, can be felt by the readers in this paragraph on page six of the story:

“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. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I had never done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands, and dumped them into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open”.

Mama finally stands up to Wangero and her determined ways. Literary critic Nancy Tuten further explains the significance of this by stating, “…When Mama takes the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie, she confirms her younger daughter’s self-worth: metaphorically, she gives Maggie her voice”. This is a pivotal turning point in the story because Wangero now knows that she does not have the power and control over her family that she thinks she does. Mama knows that she can stand up to Wangero, that after all, she has done for her, how she has accepted the way Wangero treats her and Maggie, she is still the leading authority figure. No matter how old you are, your mother is still in charge. Finally, Maggie realizes her self-worth. She knows that she is not just a shadow living in her sister’s world. She is valuable, smart, and far more tied to her roots than her sister is.  

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