Introduction- Heritage plays an important role in shaping how humans identify themselves. While individuals do not have the opportunity to entirely select their racial or cultural heritage, this element plays an important role in shaping their lives. An individual can possess a positive or negative self-image based upon the feelings they have regarding their heritage. In the short story, “Everyday Use,” African American author Alice Walker explores the role that racial heritage plays in the self-identity of the individual. In this work, the narrator and her daughter Maggie still identify with their African American culture while the narrator’s worldlier daughter, Dee, eschews her African American heritage in favor of a native African identity. By establishing Maggie as a symbol for cultural pride and Dee as a symbol for cultural abandonment, Walker conveys the role that identity plays in one’s self-image. Yet, through Dee, the symbol of the quilt, and the discussion of Dee’s boyfriend Hakim-a-barber, Walker asserts that the ability to choose one’s identity is the first step to individual empowerment.
Evidence 1 – A contextual analysis of “Everyday Use” reveals that heritage and identity are integral to the themes of the story. According to a biography of Alice Walker, Walker was raised in the community of Eatonton, Georgia and described herself as the “daughter of rural peasantry” (About Alice Walker). Walker’s southern background formed the backdrop for many of her stories and evidenced the importance that her roots played in her works. As literary critic Claudia T. Tate notes, it is important to consider that Walker’s work gained notoriety in the midst of the Black Power movement, where African Americans were asserting the importance of their heritage (Tate 308). As Tate notes, the debate over how African American history should be construed within “Everyday Use” was also taking place within the broader context of society (308). As a product of its time, the story contributes to the wider discussions that many groups were holding on the definitions of their heritage and the relationship that those definitions had to their identities. Walker utilizes symbolism in her story in order to provide insight into these questions that also occupied the focus of her contemporaries.
Evidence 2 – A textual analysis of everyday use also reveals the role that heritage plays in impacting the self-image of the characters. First, each character, and especially Dee, reveals how their self-esteem is impacted by their conceptions of heritage. The narrator acknowledges that she possesses physical features that are distinctively Southern and African American when she writes:
In real life I am a large big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather (Walker 74)
Yet, this description stands in contrast to the physical appearance that is valued by mainstream society. Describing these preferences through the preferences of her daughter Dee, the narrator asserts, “...on television, I am the way my daughter would want me to be; a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights” (74). As this passage details, physical appearance is the first aspect of heritage that Walker addresses.
Additionally, Walker notes the impact that heritage, as conveyed through aesthetic values, has on the self-esteem of the characters. As literary scholar Susan Farrel notes, the narrator and Maggie express adherence to their “folk” heritage (Farrel 179). Further, the family reflects their unwillingness to change heir way of living or their aesthetic values to accommodate society (179). Yet, as Walker suggests through the narration, this comes at a price to the self-image of the characters. The narrator notes her recognition that she deviates from the prized aesthetics of society in her appraisal of her daughter Maggie. She describes Dee as being “lighter” than Maggie with “nicer” hair (75), assigning positive descriptions to Dee for falling from the traditional African American culture. Further, she describes a disfigurement in Maggie’s walking patterns, which also are an insertion of value judgment. As the text demonstrates, while the characters might consciously rebuke Dee’s rejection of her traditional heritage, they have embodied the negative values and appraisals that Dee has adopted in regard to their heritage. This conflict is a component of the discussion that Walker invited the reader to engage in through her work.
Evidence 3 – Further, Walker utilizes the symbols of the quilt and Dee’s boyfriend to highlight the theme of heritage in her work. As a symbol of the pride that the narrator and Maggie possess towards their heritage, Walker describes a family quilt that dates back to the Civil War. As Sam Whitsett holds, this quilt is symbolically significant because it is a work of art that is incapable of being framed, features many imperfections, and, thus, represents the authenticity of the character's true heritage (Whitsett 449). Yet, because the quilt is from the Civil War period, it also represents the oppressive aspects of African American history that Dee has rejected in favor of African tribal heritages. For example, her adoption of the name “Wangero” denotes her desire to establish her own identity rather than simply have the soiled heritage of slavery and American prejudice passed on to her.
Thus far, Walker appears to take a neutral stance on the concept of heritage. Though disdain for the condescending antics of Dee is evident, there are no expressed condemnations of her attempts to define her heritage. However, she conveys the importance of self-definition through heritage through the character Hakim-a-barber. As scholar David Cowart asserts Walker portrays this character as a foolish individual because he adheres to a religion that has been imposed upon blacks by other cultures (Cowart 171). Through Hakim-a-barber, Walker also presents the futility and the irony at attempts for self-identity by African Americans. While the character is admired because of his ability to select his own name, it is also demonstrated that he must succumb to an alternative oppressor in his effort to reject his African American heritage. Thus, while the quilt represents the horrible legacies of the Civil War, adherence to the African American identity is no less oppressive than the adoption of alternative heritages.
Rebuttal – While Walker offers a nuanced dialogue on heritage, many argue that Walker’s stance on Dee can be interpreted in a black-and-white manner. As Farrell notes, many critics of the work establish that Dee is a shallow character who lacks a true understanding of her heritage (Farrell 179). Thus, through this lens, the implications of Dee’s choice to name herself Wangero or her perspective on her family origins should be dismissed as superficial. From this standpoint, Walker’s story is not necessarily an exploration of the relationship between heritage and identity or an affirmation of positive self-identification. Rather, it is a caution of the folly of attempting to escape one’s heritage.
Conclusion – Writing during a period where African Americans and other minority groups were vocal about their unique heritage, the question of identity is prominent in Alice Walker’s works. In “Everyday Use” Walker explores both the role that heritage and identity play in self-esteem and the efficacy of attempts at self-expression. While the story affirms that forming a positive identity around one’s heritage is important, it also warns of the folly of attempting to escape the negative aspects of one’s heritage through wrongful attempts at self-definition. Through the tensions presented by Dee, the symbolism of the family quilt, and the representation of Dee’s boyfriend, Walker provides a multifaceted examination of the cultural legacy left to African Americans.
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