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“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker Review

Are heritage and tradition different for people who belong to the same culture? The story Everyday Use, written by Alice Walker, portrays two different overviews of one’s heritage under the circumstances that the two polar viewpoints belong to people within the same family. On the one hand, Mama is a continuation of generations that have lived through slavery and have changed, alternating the traditional African ways of life while remaining loyal to the values exacerbated by direct ancestors. On the other hand, Dee, the daughter, discovers new ideas about her African roots and disregards the more Westernized values of her family, emphasizing the ethnical connotations of the cultural background she belongs to. However, the two life choices related to how one portrays the heritage are not only different in relation to values but also to their physical manifestation. The short story illustrates the theme of heritage, its subjectivity, and how one interprets and externalizes it.

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Heritage as a Value

Mama and Dee have opposite overviews on the meaning and value of heritage. Specifically, the ideas differ based on how they interpret culture preservation. In Mama’s case, she preserves the culture by sharing the experience of her ancestors, continuing the legacy of her family, and maintaining strong family bonds. On the other hand, Dee disregards the history of her family since it was critically shaped by oppression and slavery. An example is when she mentions Dee being dead and wanting to be called Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo since she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker, 1973, p.3). On the other hand, her name has a meaning related to the history of her family. As Mama points out, “you was named after your aunt Dicie” (Walker, 1973, p.3). However, since the name is not traditional, Dee disregards it as a result of westernizing Africans being given names that align with the oppressive history. It is clear that heritage has a different value for both. For Mama, it is about honoring the culture as it changed through the generations prior to her since each ancestor had a personal history that changed them. Dee, however, believes in traditional values, and if they change because of adaptation of oppression, they lose authenticity and value. Thus, the theme of heritage is illustrated through the perception of one’s self through heritage, which each of the characters interprets in their own constructive way.

Manifestation of Heritage

The theme of heritage is also portrayed through how the characters choose to manifest it. The manifestation is critically different and is illustrated through how both Mama and Dee chose to implement parts of their culture in their lives either through direct involvement or showcasing. An element that best illustrates the diversity in approaches is the quilt. As a traditional African textile, the quilts have a deeper meaning in terms of the characters’ heritage. However, Mama believes they have to be used in order for the tradition to be expressed. Thus, she points out that she is leaving them to the other daughter, Maggie, stating that “God knows I been saving ’em for long enough with nobody using ’em. I hope she will!”. Based on this approach, the manifestation of one’s heritage is how one chooses to apply tradition in day-to-day life and give physical meaning to the culture. On the other hand, Dee chooses to showcase the pieces, suggesting that “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!”. Instead, she chooses to hang them and create a visual representation of her heritage. The difference is that Mama would rather see the tradition live rather than be showcased. In one case, the culture has a deeper meaning, connecting generations and continuing to live on. In the other one, it becomes imagery, which ultimately defeats its purpose and turns it into a spectacle or a performance.

Conclusion

The central theme of heritage is exemplified through constructivism in relation to the difference in perception and manifestation of one’s cultural background. Both Mama and Dee have deeply rooted respect and honor for where they came from yet choose to externalize this in different ways. Mama’s heritage is the traditional way of life of her ancestors, the memories they left behind, and the experiences they had, both good and bad. Dee’s heritage is a less subjective one as she views culture as an artistic experience and a way to visually and behaviorally represent her ethnicity. Thus, heritage, while remaining alive in how both the mother and daughter perceive the world around them, contrasts in how it is externalized. The contrast between the two viewpoints illustrates the significance of the theme in the short story and the ambiguity of the subject as illustrated by the author’s polar representation of the same notion.

Reference

Walker, A. (1973). Everyday Use. Harper’s Magazine.

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