Identity and Cultural Heritage in “Everyday Use”
Everyday Use is a short story written by African-American writer Alice Walker and published in 1973. Mrs. Johnson, an African-American woman and the main character of the story, lives in the suburbs of an unknown town in the Deep South and is a mother of two adult daughters. Johnson’s eldest child, Dee, is an educated, successful woman who brings her Muslim boyfriend to dinner at her mother’s house, where she lives with her younger daughter, Maggie. The lives of Mrs. Johnson and Maggie are presented in stark contrast to that of Dee. The author employs first-person narrative from the point of view of Mrs. Johnson in order to capture the main character’s thoughts and reflections on her life, the past events that happened to her family, and the fate of her two daughters. Despite being stingy with events, the book covers several important topics, such as American systemic racism and the search for one’s identity and cultural heritage through the characters of Mrs. Johnson, Dee, and Maggie.
To begin with, the character of Mrs. Johnson is an old-fashioned representative of the Greatest Generation having a hard time trying to connect with her progressive and literate daughter Dee. Mrs. Johnson did not receive formal education due to the closure of her school. However, she is proud of herself for being a self-sufficient woman being able to perform traditionally masculine tasks. Mrs. Johnson talks little about her childhood, although she mentions the attitude she used to experience as a person of color, by saying: “in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now”. The author never mentions the father of Dee and Maggie, and hence, it can be assumed that Mrs. Johnson raised her children alone, which speaks volumes about her determination and independence (Yang). The old house where Dee and Maggie grew up had burnt down, and Mrs. Johnson and Maggie were forced to move to a house in poor condition with a tin roof and holes in walls instead of real windows (Walker 26). Living her whole life in poverty, surrounded by prejudices and systemic racism, Mrs. Johnson simply wants a better life for both of her daughters.
In turn, Dee is ashamed of her family and tries to distance herself from her past life. First of all, at the dinner, Dee announces her new name, which she believes is a more appropriate name for a woman with African roots (Walker). She resigns the name of Dee as it was given to her enslaved ancestors by white oppressors. However, she completely dismisses the fact that it is a part of her family’s history and cultural heritage (Zhiliang). Dee clearly looks down on her mother and sister; she is able to pursue higher education and uses this chance to break out of her family’s poverty cycle. Upon arrival at dinner, she takes an interest in the old quilts that her grandmother used to make herself by stitching pieces of clothes owned by her relatives and ancestors (Walker). Dee believes that the quilts should be stored safely as objects of high cultural importance, while her mother insists on employing the quilts for everyday use (Muttaleb). This clash of interests signifies Dee’s artificial interest in her national and family’s heritage as opposed to Mrs. Johnson, who values the traditions and treats the family’s history with respect.
The character of Dee is juxtaposed with Maggie, who is described as a less attractive, self-assured, and successful version of her older sister. Even her mother seems to not think highly of her: “Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by.” (Walker 27). While Dee enjoyed the house burning down as she hated it so much, Meggie was significantly more affected by the fire, both physically and mentally. Meggie’s arms and legs are mutilated by scars; she has trouble walking, reading, and seeing well – as a result, she seems to be constantly anxious and intimidated by any social interactions. One of the main traits that define her character is envy for her sister, whom she always looks at with awe and believes that she “held life always in the palm of one hand, that “no” is a word the world never learned to say to her.” (Walker 23). However, unlike Dee, Maggie stays true to her identity and cultural heritage – it is she who is chosen to inherit the old quilts as she was taught how to sew them herself and would be able to pass on this tradition.
For the author, the central conflict of the story is between the younger generation of well-brought African-Americans and the older generation who spent their entire life to ensure a better life for their children. The former, represented by Dee, employ their cultural heritage as traits of their identity they use to show off without ever submerging themselves into the meaning and traditions behind it. Instead, they use every opportunity to escape their families in favor of more modern and progressive Black youth culture – so does Maggie’s boyfriend, who shares similar views on his family’s and cultural values (Walker 30). On the other hand, Maggie, who might lack the ambition of her sister, proves herself on several occasions to be a modest, unhypocritical person who appreciates her mother, the life they lead, and the cultural heritage of their family (Yang). The author clearly sympathizes with the characters of both sisters as their story is partially inspired by the life of Alice Walker herself. Dee can be respected for her self-confidence, progressiveness, and a sense of purpose. However, the author’s position is that one cannot discover your true identity by hiding from their past and disrespecting their cultural heritage.
In conclusion, the key themes of the short story are the generational conflict between the characters of Mrs. Johnson and Dee and the problem of self-determination and identity in the context of one’s cultural heritage. The choice for the two sisters seems to be between the total separation from family, culture, and traditions and the ordinary dull life of lower-class African-American families. Nevertheless, the author suggests that it is Dee’s ego and ignorance that prevent her from becoming a better version of herself. Maggie, on the other hand, is unable to reach the level of academic and social life heights achieved by her sister, although it serves as a moral compass of the story when it comes to cultural heritage and family. The balance can be maintained if one is to stop being ashamed of their past and take full interest in their culture and family history instead of artificially utilizing its convenient parts for the sake of attention.
Muttaleb, Fuad Abdul. “The Characters of Children in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path”: A Comparative Study.” International Journal of Language and Literary Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, 2021, pp. 166-173.
Walker, Alice. Everyday use. Edited by Barbara T. Christian, Rutgers, 1994.
Yang, Xinyu. “Study on Black Woman Spirituality in Alice Walker’s Everyday Use.” Proceedings of the 2020 International Conference on Language, Communication and Culture Studies (ICLCCS 2020), edited by Tatiana Volodina, Xi Zang and Runan Hou, Atlantis Press, 2021.
Zhiliang, Zhao. ““You Just Don’t Understand.”-A Postcolonial Reading of Everyday Use.” International Journal of English Literature and Social Sciences, vol. 2, no. 5, 2017, pp. 9-15.