Born in rural Eatonton, Georgia, in 1944, Alice Walker was the youngest of eight children. When she was eight years old, she was blinded in one eye by a BB shot by one of her brothers. Although she eventually had surgery on her scar and became valedictorian of her high school, she endured teasing and low self-esteem throughout her childhood. She received a scholarship to Spelman College, a traditionally black college in Georgia, and left home with three things given to her by her mother, Minnie: a sewing machine to encourage self-sufficiency, a suitcase to nudge her curious spirit, and a typewriter to nurture her budding writing talents. Walker eventually left Spelman to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York, from which she graduated in 1965.
Walker is a prolific writer, working in a variety of genres including children’s literature, poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting. She is best known for her novels and short stories, in which she gives voice to a doubly oppressed group: African American women. Her novel The Color Purple (1982) is perhaps her most well-known, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and inspiring a film adaptation.
A tireless crusader on behalf of women, much of Walker’s fiction speaks out against domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, and genital mutilation, a ritual practiced by several native African cultures. Her concerns differ from ordinary “feminist” concerns, and she calls herself a “womanist,” committed to freeing women from all forms of oppression. Walker’s fiction has been the subject of controversy, because some critics believe she depicts men too harshly (such as in The Color Purple) and criticizes practices that she does not fully understand (such as genital mutilation, the subject of her 1992 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy).
“Everyday Use,” published as part of the short story collection In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), includes some of the preoccupations that recur in Walker’s later work, such as a focus on women’s lives and the interconnection of the past and present. The stories in this collection take place in settings ranging from Walker’s home territory in the American South to the multicultural world of New York City to the east African nation of Uganda. Walker’s protagonists are portrayed as victims, variously manipulated and used by husbands and lovers, white society, or their own depleted self-esteem. Most of the stories have unhappy endings or cautious resolutions based on quiet, hard-won truths. Critics have seen “Everyday Use” as standing out from the other stories in the collection, partly because of the protagonist’s confidence in defending her family’s legacy.
In the time the story is set, the late 1960s or early 1970s, black American life and identity were undergoing a radical transformation. After enduring slavery and the violence and discrimination that came with eventual freedom, African Americans gradually gained civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. A new generation emerged, some eager to break with the horrors of the past and others unable to emerge from the specter of poverty and inequality. “Everyday Use” hinges on the tension created when these two worlds come together. In the story, Walker examines the intense, serious, sometimes militant rhetoric that characterized some strains of the rising black consciousness movement. But she gives her most intense scrutiny to the often tenuous bonds between family members.