Everyday Use

by: Alice Walker

Themes

The Meaning of Heritage

Angered by what she views as a history of oppression in her family, Dee has constructed a new heritage for herself and rejected her real heritage. She fails to see the family legacy of her given name and takes on a new name, Wangero, which she believes more accurately represents her African heritage. However, the new name, like the “African” clothes and jewelry she wears to make a statement, is meaningless. She has little true understanding of Africa, so what she considers her true heritage is actually empty and false. Furthermore, Dee views her real heritage as dead, something of the past, rather than as a living, ongoing creation. She desires the carved dasher and family quilts, but she sees them as artifacts of a lost time, suitable for display but not for actual, practical use. She has set herself outside her own history, rejecting her real heritage in favor of a constructed one.

Mama and Dee have very different ideas about what “heritage” is, and for Mama, the family objects are infused with the presence of the people who made and used them. The family heirlooms are the true tokens of Dee’s identity and origins, but Dee knows little about the past. She misstates the essential facts about how the quilts were made and what fabrics were used to make them, even though she pretends to be deeply connected to this folk tradition. Her desire to hang the quilts, in a museumlike exhibit, suggests that she feels reverence for them but that to her they are essentially foreign, impersonal objects. Mama understands that Maggie, not Dee, should have the quilts, because Maggie will respect them by using them in the way they were intended to be used. When Dee contends at the end of the story that Mama and Maggie do not understand their heritage, Walker intends the remark to be ironic: clearly, it is Dee herself who does not understand her heritage.

The Divisive Power of Education

Although Mama struggled to send Dee to a good school, education proves to be more divisive than beneficial to Dee’s relationship with her family. Mama herself was denied an education. When she was a child, her school was closed, and no one attempted to try to reopen it. Racism, passive acceptance, and forces beyond her control set Mama on the road that led to her life of toil. Dee was fortunate that Mama gave her the opportunity for advantages and refinements, but they have served only to create a wedge between Dee and the rest of the family. Dee uses her intellect to intimidate others, greeting her mother with “Wa-su-zo Tean-o,” a greeting in an obscure African language Mama most likely doesn’t speak. Dee, with her knowledge and worldliness, is a threat to the simple world Mama and Maggie inhabit, and Dee seems determined to lord her knowledge over them. Even as a child, Dee read to her mother and sister “without pity,” “forcing” strange ideas on them and unsettling their simple domestic contentment.

Education has separated Dee from her family, but it has also separated Dee from a true sense of self. With lofty ideals and educational opportunity came a loss of a sense of heritage, background, and identity, which only family can provide. Dee arrives at the family home as a strange, threatening ambassador of a new world, a world that has left Maggie and Mama behind. Civil rights, greater visibility, and zero tolerance for inequality are characteristics of Dee’s world. These things are not, in and of themselves, problematic. What’s problematic is that Dee has no respect for anything but her world, leading her to alienate herself from her roots. Maggie, on the other hand, knows no world but the one she came from. Uneducated, she can read only haltingly. By doing what she is told and accepting the conditions of her sheltered life without question, Maggie has hampered her own self-fulfillment. Walker sets up this contrast to reveal an ironic contradiction: Dee’s voracious quest for knowledge has led to her alienation from her family, while the lack of education has harmed and stifled Maggie. Both education and the lack of it have proven to be dangerous for the sisters.


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