‘Everyday Use’, published in 1973, shows how legacy is passed onto the ones who live with it, and not to those who simply read about it. The quilts in the story is testimony to this fact.
Alice Walker, the recipient of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for The Color Purple, has also penned down several other works of excellence. Everyday Use is one of such tales from the collection, In Love and Trouble, which is a compilation of 13 short stories. Walker mainly reflected the plight and agony suffered by African-American women through her writing skills. In fact, she is famous for coining the term womanist, which she had adopted as part of her identity. It is crucial to be aware of the backdrop when this story was penned. America had undergone noticeable changes during the 1960s and ’70s, with slavery being abolished, and the period of Reconstruction dawned over American society. The change was further strengthened with the Afro-Americans gaining the Civil Rights, and the respect of earning citizenship from the clutches of slavery that had crippled them for so long.
But, the flip side was the inability of some of the Afro-Americans to come to terms with this change in their conditions. Owing to the multiple years of sufferings and acceptance of subjugation, they were in a state of mind where there was turmoil between choosing and exercising the rights, or to continue with the life they had been acquainted with. It is not enough to simply bestow a set of rights to a subjugated class. It also requires the capacity and the understanding to make use of the same. For this, education and a broad outlook are quintessential. Trouble intensifies when these two extreme behaviors are in the same family. Through this composition, Walker has done justice to this confusion.
Introduction to the Characters
Mrs. Johnson, Mama
Mama, the narrator of the story, is a mother (Mama) of two daughters who are very different from each other. Mama is a sharecropper, and has worked tediously all her life to make ends meet and provide a better life to her daughters, whom she loves earnestly. Her character is a balanced one, taking the call when it was demanded.
Well, to address her as Dee, or Wangero, is a paradox altogether. Dee is the elder daughter of Mama, who is self-sufficient in herself and has a different outlook towards life. After stern efforts on the part of Mama, Dee was able to venture out and acquire a higher education, which was a rarity in itself. In the process, Dee developed a new philosophy of life, owing to the education she received. She has a perspective of life which is totally unfamiliar with the one borne by her mother. She emerges as a new Afro-American, who believes that she has freed herself completely from the oppressive shackles of slavery. But in the process she has distanced herself from her roots, which she fails to understand. In her superfluous belief about her strong bonds with the past, she even rechristens herself as Wangero.
She is the flip-side of her elder sibling Dee. Maggie was timid, and appeared as a meek girl who had suffered severe burns during childhood. She is not as educated as Dee, and perhaps would settle down in marriage with a suitor in some time. She is adept in household chores, and knows the nuances of the activities that were practiced by her late aunt and grandmother. Maggie suffers from a strange inferiority complex, perhaps because she had suffered in a fire which left her scarred in the arms. She was also always apprehensive in the presence of Dee, and remained docile and submissive, abiding with all that is told to her by her elder sister.
Hakim, the Barber
He is the boyfriend of Dee, AKA Wangero. He accompanied her to her native place. He is a Muslim, and in an attempt to be like a traditional African, he has long tresses, which he assumes to have lent him the African legacy.
Summary of the Story
The story begins with Mama waiting at the outstretched yard for her beloved daughter Dee, who has been away from home in pursuit of studies, which she has completed with excellence. So, Mama is proudly awaiting the ‘educated’ elder daughter. In the process, she even envisions herself as the proud mother on a TV chat show, where they have been called to talk about the grand success of her daughter, who belongs to the humble Afro-American roots, and the many sacrifices her mother had to make in order to facilitate her daughter’s aspirations.
As readers, we also get introduced to Maggie, the younger daughter, who is presented as an introvert, and is inflicted with scars on her body, reminding her of the frightening experience she passed through in her life over a decade back. Meanwhile, the narrator, Mama, also gives hints about herself as a hardworking, humble woman, who took the lead role of parenting her daughters in the absence of her husband. She also describes herself as a non-witty person, in wretched outfit, plump, and non-showy.
Dee arrives accompanied by an Arab man. Mama and Maggie are quite taken aback by the change of looks by Dee, and her equally strange counterpart Hakim. Dee also captures the old house of theirs with the aid of her fancy camera. Mama and Maggie both pose, but are really shy and clueless about the state of affairs. Dee now throws out the fact that she is no longer using her name Dee, and has rechristened herself to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, an African name. She said that she would not like to be addressed by the name of her oppressors.
They all gather at the table in the yard for dinner, which the narrator has prepared to perfection. Here, we find Dee reminiscing the past at the sight of the benches her father had prepared years ago. She enjoys dinner to the fullest, unlike her boyfriend, who is not fond of collard greens and pork, which happen to be Afro-American delicacies.
We now find Dee appreciating the butter churn top and the dasher, which lay in the yard. She also suggests to have these articles at her place as decorative pieces. Her exploration doesn’t stop here. She is now up to look up into her mother’s trunk that rested in her mother’s room. She gets hold of two old quilts inside the trunk, and is highly elated o see them there. She is also intending to take these along with her, to which her mother gives no consent. These quilts were handmade by the collaborative efforts of her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother.
Dee coaxes her mother to give her those, in a gesture that she already owns them. Mama now spills the beans and says that those quilts were preserved for Maggie, as her wedding gift in the near future. Dee is furious. She says that those quilts are being given in the wrong hands. Maggie will not know the importance of the quilts. Those were crafted by the bits of pieces of clothes worn by her grandmother and grandfather. They were laden with memories. They were pieces of rare beauty and memories. Maggie would simply put them to day-to-day use, unlike her, who would hang them on the walls to décor a house of high aesthetic appeal.
Meanwhile, we hear some strange noise in the kitchen, and the slamming of the door. This was the reaction of Maggie to the sad state of affairs, where she was not supposed to have the articles she so much desired. Mama sensed this. There was an exchange of heated words between Mama and Dee, when Maggie comes into the room and says that she is willing to give away those quilts to Dee.
Mama however disagrees, and to the surprise of Maggie, takes the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie instead. She offered her to take two other newer, better, machine-made quilts.
In a fit of rage, Dee walks out of the house, rebuking her mother and sister. She says to Mama that she is unable to understand her own ‘heritage’. She moves up to Maggie to bid her goodbye, and tells her to try to make something of herself too.
She embarked the car, put on a set of fancy glares, and sped away with her boyfriend.
The benches crafted by the girls’ father transported Dee to a bygone era which she has left behind long ago. She is happy to find the benches still appealing, even though they are no longer of any use to her, and are just mere memoirs of the past. The same is true for the Churn top, dasher and the quilts. All these articles were all rendered as antics by Dee, whereas, they were still in everyday use by her own family members. She also photographed her mother, sister, and their house, not to carry the memories back, but to have the photographs as testimony of the life that they were still living despite the change.
The Act of Name Changing
Dee was dead; in her place was born Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Dee was educated and was able enough to trace her roots and exercise her newly obtained civil rights. But was her education shallow? This is the point to ponder about. Does a change in a mere name free oneself of the long, traumatic past of slavery. Dee didn’t stop here. She had decked up in a traditional African dress to make herself one of those Africans who are rooted to the past.
Statements and Mannerism
Dee was an outgoing person. She had studied and had been able to carve herself a place in the new-age society. She denounced her slavery roots, and by virtue of her education she was very well a part of the new world. So far, so good. Trouble is seen when she looks down upon her mother and sister because of their inability to embrace the new life.
Mama and Maggie are similar. In fact, Maggie is just an extended version of her mother. She has the same efficiency to make butter at home like her mother, grandmother, and aunt. This is in total contrast to what Dee is habituated to do. Dee is far from carrying out any of these traditional African chores.
Dee is scornful about the fact that her mother chose Maggie over her to give her those quilts. But in fact, when she was moving out for her studies, she herself had refused to own those quilts, because she considered those as misfits for her new life.
Dee is judgmental about the way of life her mother and sister have taken up. She feels that they are not able to live a life of dignity, and are still caught in the life that was more of slavery in nature. But the fact was they were both more rooted to their own culture and heritage. They carried out all work in the true traditional ways, rather than adopting modern ways.
Aiming to acquire traditional objects to be close to her roots, Dee failed miserably to own her own traditional family.
The act of giving the quilts to Maggie by her mother etched a feeling of self-fulfillment within her. She was elated for the fact that her mother had finally owned her. This gave her a new sense of accomplishment. She, for the first time, didn’t feel scared of her sister, nor was she suffering from an inferiority complex.
Dee drives away, leaving dust and sand in the air. But Mama and Maggie are far from the feeling of devastation, loss, or hatred. They continued to sit in the yard, awaiting nightfall, and the time to lay in slumber.
We are often prey to dilemma, where we need to take a stand and tread on a given path. Solutions are not always easy, especially when they are right. This story highlighted this feeling suffered by a mother of two very different daughters.