Lost Heritage in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"
By contrasting the family characters in "Everyday Use," Walker illustrates the mistake by some of placing the significance of heritage solely in material objects. Walker presents Mama and Maggie, the younger daughter, as an example that heritage in both knowledge and form passes from one generation to another through a learning and experience connection. However, by a broken connection,
Dee, the older daughter, represents a misconception of heritage as material.
During Dee's visit to Mama and Maggie, the contrast of the characters becomes a conflict because Dee misplaces the significance of heritage in her desire for racial heritage.
Mama and Maggie symbolize the connection between generations and the heritage that passed between them. Mama and Maggie continue to live together in their humble home. Mama is a robust woman who does the needed upkeep of the land,
I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter, I wear overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. I can work outside all day, One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. (Walker 289)
And Maggie is the daughter, "homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs," (Walker 288) who helps Mama by making "the yard so clean and wavy"
(Walker 288) and washes dishes "in the kitchen over the dishpan" (Walker 293).
Neither Mama nor Maggie are 'modernly' educated persons; "I [Mama] never had an education myself. Sometimes Maggie reads to me. She stumbles along good- naturedly She knows she is not bright" (Walker 290). However, by helping Mama,
Maggie uses the hand-made items in her life, experiences the life of her ancestors, and learns the history of both, exemplified by Maggie's knowledge of the hand-made items and the people who made them--a knowledge which Dee does not possess.
Contrasting with Mama and Maggie, Dee seeks her heritage without understanding the heritage itself. Unlike Mama who is rough and man-like, and
Maggie who is shy and scared, Dee is confident, where "Hesitation is no part of her nature," (Walker 289) and beautiful:
" first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God had shaped them Dee next. A dress down to the ground Earrings gold, too (Walker 291)
Also, Dee has a 'modern' education, having been sent "to a school in Augusta"
(Walker 290). Dee attempts to connect with her racial heritage by taking
"picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included" (Walker 291).
Dee takes an another name without understanding her original name; neither does
Dee try to learn. Also, Dee takes some of the hand-made items of her mother's such as the churn top which she will use "as a centerpiece for the alcove table"
(Walker 293). Dee associates the items with her heritage now, but thought nothing of them in her youth as when the first house burnt down. Dee's quest of her heritage is external, wishing to have these various items in order to display them in her home. Dee wants the items because she perceives each to have value, as shown in the dialog between Dee and Mama about the quilts after dinner.
Dee's valuing of the quilt conflicts with Mama's perception of the quilts.
Dee considers the quilt priceless because the quilt is hand-stitched, not machined, by saying, "There are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this stitching by hand. Imagine!" (Walker 294). Dee plans to display the quilts or "Hang them," (Walker 294) unlike Maggie who may "put them to everyday use" (Walker 294). However, Mama "promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries " (Walker 294). Mama knows there exists a connection of heritage in Maggie; Mama knows that "It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught
[Maggie] how to quilt" (Walker 294). Because of Maggie's connection, Mama takes the quilts from Dee who "held the quilts securely in her arms, stroking them clutching them closely to her bosom" (Walker 294) like sacred idols, and then gives them to Maggie.
After Mama gives Maggie the quilts, Dee says, "You just don't understand
Your heritage" (Walker 295). Dee believes heritage to be the quilt on the wall or the churn in the alcove. Dee knows the items are hand-made but not the knowledge and history behind the items. Yet, Mama does know the knowledge and history and knows that Maggie does too. Ironically, Dee criticizes Mama for not understanding heritage when, in fact, Dee fails to really understand heritage.
Dee mistakenly places heritage wholly in what she owns, not what she knows.
Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Ed.
Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt, 1994. 288-295.