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Preserving Cultural Heritage: Conflict in Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Keeping one’s cultural heritage intact is a fairly important goal for any individual or group, but it can become more or less challenging, depending on various circumstances. Few social groups in the United States have a history as complex and turbulent as African Americans, which naturally manifests in the difficulties they face when it comes to their heritage. People may disagree not only about which periods of their shared history should serve as a foundation of their identity but also about the best ways and methods to preserve it for future generations. The conflict between Mama and Dee, the main characters of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” is precisely about that: relating to one’s heritage and debating how – if at all – one should preserve it. Dee’s self-distancing made her a spectator rather than a bearer of African American heritage, which is Mama’s willingness to put it to everyday use is portrayed as the true way of preserving it.

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The decisive confrontation between the ttwo main characters of the story happens when Dee finds the old hand-sewn quilts going back to the times of the Civil War? Dee asks her mother to take the quilts with her to hang them for preservation, but Mama does not oblige because she intends to give them to Maggie, her other daughter. The two openly argue about how to proceed until Mama snatches the items from Dee and puts them firmly into Maggie’s hand, thus resolving the argument for good. Exasperated, Dee says that her mother does not understand her “heritage” – notably enough, it is the only time in the story someone uses the word (Walker, p. 6). Thus, in the story’s main conflict, Dee positions herself as the only person in the family who can properly appreciate their heritage, which sets her apart from her mother and sister alike.

The sense of distance between Dee and Mama becomes evident in the first paragraphs of the text and never subsides throughout the entire text. Since the short story is written from the first-person perspective, the readers view Dee through Mama’s eyes – and this feeling of distance and alienation is a hallmark of Mama’s perception of her daughter. It is particularly evident when Mama recalls the fire in their old house and Dee’s gleeful reaction to the event. Mama even admits her desire to ask Dee: “Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes?” as her daughter’s hatred of the family’s old house is no secret for either of the two characters (Walker, p. 2). Hence, the distance between the mother and the daughter is set early on in the story, and, through Mama’s thoughts, the author reminds the audience about it now and then. As Mullins puts it, “Every positive character trait or aspiration is tainted by Mrs. Johnson’s unflattering perspective” (p. 43). Dee’s detachment from her family might well be her defining trait.

The old house is not the only aspect that reveals this detachment: Dee is equally opposed to the names used in her family. The first instance the reader sees her, she insists that her name is “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” rather than “Dee” (Walker, p. 3). She explains this antagonism toward English names by the unwillingness to be named after the people who oppress her (Walker 3). The situation is rendered a bit ironic by the fact that she is named after her uncle, who, in turn, got his name after Grandma Dee and so forth. People in the family inherit their names and pass them from one generation to another, and Mama can even trace this pattern of naming back to the times before the Civil War (Walker, p. 3). Dee’s distaste of her inherited name is yet another way of distancing herself from her family: by denouncing the name, she literally rejects her heritage while Mama remains the bearer of the tradition.

Despite her professed devotion to her African American identity, Dee only appreciates certain aspects of it, such as the hand-sewn quilts, but openly denies the others. Her family’s old house of the names passed on since the early 19th century are all parts of African American cultural heritage, but she sees no value in them and, therefore, disregards them. This sharp distinction is further emphasized by the fact that she only refers to the quilts as “heritage” – and, as mentioned above, it is the only time the word is used in the story (Walker, p. 6). It is also worth noting that Dee ants to hang the quilts for display and is mortified by the idea of actually using them. Thus, Dee’s distance from her family turns her into a “spectator come comesee her authentic roots” (Mullins, p. 41). As a spectator, the only way of preserving her heritage she can think of is hanging it on the wall, as one would display an artifact of an ancient civilization in a museum.

However, Mama’s perspective suggests another way to maintain African American legacies. While Dee shudders at the thought of actually using the quilts, Mama’s response is that Maggie knows how to quilt and can always make more (Walker, p. 6). What Dee seeks to preserve, Mama and Maggie can easily reproduce precisely because they use it. This reproduction applies to language as well: while Dee denounces her birth name, Mama remembers the tradition. Critics have pointed to the “strong analogy between quilting and storytelling” in Walker’s writing, which is quite evident in this case (Whitsitt, p. 445). Walker’s writing career has been largely dominated by “preserving the proximate past in the form of its language” – and the only sure way to preserve a language is reading and writing in it (Cowart, p. 48). Thus, in the conflict between Dee, who wants to make an exhibit of her heritage, and Mama, who seeks to use it, the latter offers the more feasible option. As a bearer of cultural tradition, Mama understands what eludes Dee as a spectator: the best way to preserve cultural heritage – whether physicalorf linguistic –ist putting it to everyday use.

As one can see, “Everyday Use” discusses the preservation of African American cultural heritage through the conflict of the two main characters and arrives at a definite conclusion regarding the subject. Dee, a young and educated daughter of the story’s narrator, wants to preserve her heritage manifested in several hand-sewn quilts by putting them on display. However, she pays no regard to other parts of her legacy, be that her old house or the names used in the family. In contrast, Mama can trace the naming patterns that Dee despises so much back to the Civil War and insists that quilts should be left to her other daughter Maggie for everyday use. This difference in approach designates Dee as a spectator, contrasted to Mama as a bearer of cultural tradition. Thus, the story suggests that the best way of preserving a group’s heritage, be it physical objects or spoken language, is not putting it on display, as in a museum, but using and reproducing it.

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  1. Cowatt, David. The Tribe of Pyn: Literary Generations in the Postmodern Period. University of Michigan Press, 2015.
  2. Mullins, Matthew. “Antagonized by the Text, Or, It Takes Two to Read Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” The Comparatist, vol. 37, 2013, pp. 37-53.
  3. Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Aiken County Public School District.
  4. Whitsitt, Sam. Despitef It All: A Reading of Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’.” African American Review, vol. 34, no. 3, 2000, pp. 443-459.

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