'Everyday Use' is a widely acclaimed short story by Alice Walker, capturing the complexities of family dynamics and heritage in the African-American community. Originally published in Harper's Magazine in 1973, the story found a place in Walker's collection of short stories titled 'In Love and Trouble.'
The short story "Everyday Use" is narrated in the first person by Mrs. Johnson, a large African-American woman who has two daughters, Dee (the elder) and Maggie (the younger). While Maggie shares many of her mother's views and lacks confidence, Dee is different and more independent.
Dee's Education and Return
Mrs. Johnson explains how she and the local church collected funds to send Dee to school for an education. When Dee returned, she read stories to her mother and sister. Mrs. Johnson admits that she didn't have much education herself as her school was closed down, and Maggie, though able to read, has poor eyesight and isn't particularly clever according to her mother.
Their previous house recently burned down, a house that Dee never liked. Dee hasn't yet visited her mother and sister in the new house, but she mentioned that she won't bring her friends with her when she does come, hinting at her embarrassment regarding their living situation.
Dee's Transformation and Visit
During Dee's first visit to the new house, she arrives with her new partner, a short and stocky Muslim man referred to as 'Asalamalakim', a corrupted version of 'salaam aleikum' or 'As-salamu alaykum'. He later asks Mrs. Johnson to call him Hakim-a-barber.
Dee reveals to her mother that she no longer wishes to be known as Dee but prefers to be called Wangero Lee-wanika Kemanjo. She wants to shed the name associated with the white people who oppressed her and other African Americans. Mrs. Johnson explains that Dee was named after her aunt, Dicie, but Dee is convinced it was a name given by their white oppressors.
Conflict over Heirlooms
Dee/Wangero begins examining the objects in the house, particularly the quilts that belonged to her grandmother, also named Dee. She claims ownership of some of these heirlooms. Mrs. Johnson, however, declares that she intends to keep the quilts for Maggie when she marries John Thomas.
Dee responds dismissively, implying that Maggie would use the special quilts for 'everyday use', causing them to wear out and become 'rags' within a short period. Maggie, resignedly, allows her sister to have the quilts. As Dee moves to take them for herself, Mrs. Johnson suddenly feels an inspiration to reclaim the quilts and holds Maggie close, refusing to give them to Dee and suggesting she takes one of the other quilts instead.
Dee leaves with Hakim-a-barber, expressing her belief that her mother and sister don't understand their heritage. She encourages Maggie to aspire to more than staying home with their mother. After they leave, Maggie and Mrs. Johnson spend some time sitting outside until they eventually retire to bed.
Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" delves into the contrasting perspectives and attitudes of the characters, particularly between Dee (or Wangero, as she later names herself) and her mother, Mrs. Johnson. While Mrs. Johnson focuses on the immediate family and home, Dee seeks to escape this environment and explores her African roots to understand her identity and heritage on a deeper level.
Dee's Departure and Cultural Exploration
Dee's departure from her family home is marked by her romantic involvement with a man of African Muslim descent and her keen interest in African culture and history. This is exemplified by her change of name from Dee to Wangero Lee-wanika Kemanjo, as she seeks to distance herself from the European-influenced family name. Her search for ancestral identity through African language and traditions aligns with the rising trend among African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The significance of names in the story becomes apparent, with Maggie and Mrs. Johnson bearing European-influenced names, while Dee (or Wangero) seeks to embrace her African heritage through her new name. The rejection of her family's parochial attitude is evident when she expresses her disdain for their old house that recently burned down.
Complexities and Limitations of Dee's Identity Journey
While Dee's pursuit of her cultural identity seems celebratory, Alice Walker introduces complexities and limitations to her character. The story's narrative is from Mrs. Johnson's perspective, offering an outsider's view of Dee's transformation. This choice allows the reader to see Dee through her mother's eyes, and it shapes the readers' perception of Dee as a character.
Furthermore, Dee's actions during her visit display some negative traits. Her assertive and dominating personality is evident when she attempts to take the family quilts for herself, ignoring Maggie's strong emotional connection to them. The quilts symbolize Maggie's link to her ancestors, which Dee is trying to sever.
The Epiphany and Assertion of Identity
Alice Walker employs the literary device of an epiphany in the story. Mrs. Johnson experiences a moment of self-assertion and realization when she decides to stand her ground and refuse Dee the family quilts. This moment is significant as it shows her willingness to challenge Dee's dominant personality and assert her own agency in the family.
"Everyday Use" explores the complexities of identity and heritage, challenging the notion of a single, homogenous cultural experience. Walker skillfully portrays the tensions between different generations, each with its unique understanding of history and heritage, ultimately highlighting the need for empathy and understanding within families to reconcile their diverse perspectives.