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The Problem of Heritage in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Knowing, preserving, and passing on one’s cultural heritage are significant components of one’s cultural identity. In her story “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker addresses the problem of African Americans’ heritage, namely, what they considered to be their heritage and how they treated it back in the 1960s. In David Cowart’s article, “Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s ‘Everyday Use,’” he explains that Dee, the story’s main character, represents the generation willing to restore their link to Africa. However, in her attempt to preserve her heritage, she does not notice her betrayal of her culture. Moreover, in Helga Hoel’s article, “Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use,’” she argues that the ignorance of one’s roots and unwillingness to learn one’s history leads to awkward attempts to preserve heritage. In her story “Everyday Use,” Walker suggests her view of what constitutes one’s cultural heritage and reflects African Americans’ struggle for preserving their heritage as influenced by sociocultural trends of the 1960s.

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The name is the first thing constituting one’s heritage, which the reader encounters in Walker’s story. Dee enters the scene, objecting to her mother’s calling her Dee: “Not ‘Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!” (Walker 326). By choosing these three names, Dee wants to emphasize her African roots. However, what Dee fails to realize is that her chosen names “[represent] the whole East African region,” indicating that she “has only superficial knowledge of Africa and all it stands for” (Hoel 37). Dee, like many African Americans in the 1960s, had an interest in everything African but did not bother to find out her real African roots. If she did, she could probably find out that her ancestors came from West Africa, from where most slaves were brought to America. Thus, Dee’s new names probably have nothing to do with her ancestry, while her original name has been passed on in their family for such a long time that her mother “could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches” (Walker 326). Dee’s original name represented the strongest connection between Dee and her ancestors. So, her name change can be considered “chief among the little gestures that collectively add up to a profound betrayal” (Cowart 172). One may conclude that Walker satirized African Americans’ desire to restore their African identity, due to which they renounced their real kinship ties.

In her story, Walker tackles the theme of religion and shows that it is part of one’s heritage only when it is genuinely believed and practiced. When Dee’s mother meets her companion, whose name she hears as Hakim-a-barber, she asks whether he belongs to Muslims. Hakim-a-barber responds to her, “I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my style” (Walker 327). Hakim-a-barber’s view of Islam is superficial because “[h]e accepts what is suitable for him and leaves the rest” (Hoel 39). Dee’s mother is respectful toward Muslims since she considers them laborious and genuine. However, Hakim-a-barber does not deserve her respect because unlike true Muslims whose “identity seems to contain no element of pose,” Dee’s Muslim friend is “all pose” (Cowart 174). In his pretentious adherence to Islam, Hakim-a-barber seems to follow the sociocultural trends prevailing in the African American society in the 1960s. Back then, Christianity was considered the religion of the oppressors, so some African Americans became adepts of other religions, such as Islam.

Walker’s story places a great emphasis on quilt-making, which is referred to as an essential component of African American cultural heritage. The two particular quilts that Dee wants to take away with her to hang on the walls contain family history. They are made of “scraps of dresses Grandma Dee,” “bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts,” and “one teeny faded blue piece … from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War” (Walker 328). However, they are precious not only because they contain pieces of Dee’s ancestors’ clothes. They also serve as evidence of “unrecognized female creativity” (Hoel 40). The creativity of African American women represented by these quilts is their ability to make masterpieces out of plain materials. Dee seems to recognize the preciousness of this heritage, “but she fails to see the extent to which she herself has traduced that heritage” (Cowart 172). Her act of traducing consists in that she moved away from her home, changed her clothing and hairstyle and did not bother to learn how to make quilts herself. However, she claims that she understands her heritage, as opposed to her uneducated relatives.

By showing Dee’s mother’s response to Dee’s intention to take away the quilts, the story conveys the message that putting culturally significant items to everyday use does not contradict the idea of preserving cultural heritage. When Dee claims that her sister Maggie cannot appreciate the quilts and says that “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use,” her mother responds, “I hope she will!” (Walker 328). Dee’s mother sees the sense of making quilts only if they find their practical application. Her attitudes are characteristic of the African American culture, in which women were “able to devise something beautiful and functional out of throwaways” (Hoel 40). In this culture, art items were made for a practical purpose, not for the sake of art itself. However, Dee, as a representative of her generation, “seems to think the African American past can be rescued only by being commodified” (Cowart 175). Such an attitude is more characteristic of the Western culture, which Dee probably internalized during her education but which is strange to her mother and sister.

Walker seems to satirize the discrepancy between Dee’s appearance, attitudes, and behavior and her ostentatious concern about preserving her heritage. Walker depicts Dee as a young woman wearing bracelets, earrings, high heel shoes, and a long dress (326). The writer also mentions that Dee hated their old house that was burned down and refused to take the quilts with her when she was leaving for college because they were “old-fashioned, out of style” (Walker 328). Walker provides details about Dee’s prior attitudes toward her culture for a reason. Combined with her present appearance, her new name, and her patronizing tone, Dee’s sudden change in attitudes does not convince the reader of the sincerity of her intentions but indicates “a deplorable degree of alienation from her rural origins and family” (Cowart 172). She seems to have done everything to break the connection between her and her rural house and uneducated family. Her interest in her family’s cultural items is attributed only to the sociocultural trends of the 1960s, or “fashion,” which encouraged African Americans “to celebrate the distant African roots” (Hoel 38). Thus, although the intention to preserve one’s heritage is a noble one, the way Dee tries to conserve her culture does not win the reader’s approval because it is a mere following of modern trends.

Overall, Walker’s story reflects the African Americans’ cultural trends of restoring their African heritage, which were prevalent in the 1960s. It seems that Walker refers to these trends at the end of her story when Dee advises Maggie to “make something” of herself because “it’s really a new day for us” (329). This quote implies that Dee views her lifestyle as right. In contrast, she regards her mother and sister’s life as wrong since they continue to live in their rural area without education and, thus, cannot appreciate the value of their legacy. Cowart characterizes Dee as “Africa-smitten” and “a precipitate of the cultural struggles of a generation” (173). These cultural struggles were caused by African Americans’ increased self-awareness and their fight against racial segregation and discrimination. Referring to the 1960s, Hoel notes that it was “the heyday of the Black Power ideologies when … Blacks were seeking their cultural roots in Africa, without knowing too much about the continent or the routes of the Atlantic Slave Trade” (34). Dee is a good example of a Black person of those times because, in her attempts to establish her connection to Africa, she does not bother to research her origins and preserve her family values.

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In conclusion, this paper has proven that in “Everyday Use,” Walker reflects on the elements constituting one’s cultural heritage, as well as shows African American’s cultural struggles and satirizes their thoughtless attraction to everything African. It has been argued that name, religion, and art are important components of cultural heritage, and the use of culturally significant items in everyday life does not belittle their value. Further, by reviewing Hoel’s and Cowart’s criticism, it has been identified that Dee represents her African American generation that, back in the 1960s, fought for their rights and tried to restore its African identity. The significance of the African Americans’ struggle against discrimination cannot be underestimated. Yet, their obsession with everything African seems to be somewhat injudicious because it was not underpinned by a profound knowledge of their origins.

  • A Writer’s Memo
  • TO: The Reviewer
  • FROM: Your E-mail
  • DATE: April 19, 2021
  • SUBJECT: Guidance for Feedback

The purpose of my paper is to analyze Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” from a sociological perspective. Namely, I aimed at exploring the social context of this short story and discovering what cultural values it promoted. Upon reviewing the literary criticism related to this story, I found out that it reflected the cultural struggles of African Americans in the 1960s when African Americans were fighting for their rights and legacy. Therefore, I decided that the thesis that I was going to defend should be linked to the idea of African American’s cultural heritage and sociocultural trends prevalent in the 1960s.

My strength in writing this paper is that I managed to incorporate relevant quotations from the primary source and both secondary sources in each of my arguments. I tried to construct my arguments so as to prove my point about the relationship between the story and the sociocultural trends of the 1960s. I also attempted to make clear topic sentences for each body paragraph and synthesize evidence from all the sources used.

Overall, I did my best to make the paper meet the assignment instructions. However, I am open to any suggestions for improvements that would help me better achieve my purpose. In particular, I would like to make sure that I did not use too many or too long quotations to support my arguments. In addition, I would like to ensure that each paragraph of my essay contributes to the overall purpose of the paper. I think that my paper could be improved by adding the author’s background, i.e., her connection to the sociocultural trends of the 1960s. However, this information was not present in the sources, so I doubt that I can include it in my paper.

Works Cited

Cowart, David. “Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.’” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 33, no. 2, 1996, pp. 171-184. Literature Resource Center, Web.

Hoel, Helga. “Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.’” American Studies in Scandinavia, vol. 31, no. 1, 1999, pp. 34-42. Literature Resource Center, Web.

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing, edited by X. J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia, 8th ed., Pearson, 2016, pp. 323-329.

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