Alice Walker’s Everday Use contrasts the narrator and her daughter Maggie with her other daughter Dee. Maggie and her mother actually know and respect thier family heritage. Dee thinks she does, but it comes across not as respect, but as conforming to how modern society feels she should see her heritage. Dee visits home from being away for a long time and you can immediately see that she has tried to separate herself from everything that home represents, including the people who live there. Dee criticizes and looks down on her mother and Maggie because she feels they a stuck in the societal roles they were born into and that she has transcended these roles.
To me I read it as the mother is the one who made her own path, different from societal expectation, and Dee is just walking on the new road that society has made for her people. The mother “was always better at a man’s job.” She is described as stockier with darker skin and “rough man-working hands” as if she has experienced hard physical work. I love when she says “I have deliberately turned my back on the house.” By deliberately turning her back on the house, she is making a statement. The mother has turned her back on the traditional role of women, who are dainty and take care of the home. Dee, on the other hand, think she is being true to her cultural heritage by turning her back on her family heritage.
When Dee arrives she tells her mother that she has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. When the mother asks “What happened to ‘Dee’?,” Wangero replies “She’s dead…I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppressed me.” Her mother explains that it was a family name passed down from her great grandmother to grandmother to Aunt to niece and to herself says she probable can trace it back to before the Civil War. Dee talks about the heritage of her people being oppressed as if it happened to her and thinks by giving herself an African name she is rebelling against that oppression and bring true to her roots. Her mother sees it differently. To her Dee is a family name and is a tribute to the women before her and respecting their family heritage. After Dee goes into the house she starts claiming items to be used as decoration in her house that are used practically by mother and Maggie. She sees her family heritage as decoration, a story, and the mother and Maggie see it as part of their lives. This is especially apparent when Dee wants these old quilts that her grandma made so she can hang them on her wall. Mother tells her no because they are for Maggie to use. This upsets Dee because she thinks these things would just be destroyed by everyday use and are relics of the past, but mother and Maggie feel they are actually continuing the tradition of the blankets by having them be used and repaired by Maggie when the rip, like Maggie is adding her own story to the family story of the blankets. Dee just doesn’t understand this. She immediately leaves and says “You just don’t understand.” When her mother asks her to clarify, Dee replies “your heritage.” This is so ironic to me because she is the one who doesn’t understand.
Maggie was horribly burned in a home fire when she was younger and she and her sister Dee do not have a great relationship. Maggie wears a “pink skirt and red blouse” like the color of fresh scars and Dee wears a long dress that has “yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun” like fire. The mother even describes her “whole face warming from the heat it throws out.” Dee is the fire that burns Maggie. At the end when mother refuses to give her the quilts that are Maggie’s, Dee leaves and puts on a pair of sunglasses and Maggie smiles a real smile as she leaves. It is like the fire of Dee has finally been put out and Maggie doesn’t need to be the shy girl she was at the beginning of the story, hiding from the flames.
This story really makes you think about what heritage really is. Is it who your ancestors from hundreds of years ago were or is it the traditions passed down from parent to child in more recent generations. How can you embrace and respect tradition while modernizing with the times? My grandmother is Alaskan Native with Russian roots. She has a very rich heritage which my siblings and I know a bit about, but I have a hard time finding ways to impart it on my own children. I do read old Russian fairy tales like Baba Yaga to my kids and we make them some of my favorite Russian foods, but it is really hard beyond that because I didn’t experience these traditions first hand. I do pass down the family traditions though and make every effort for my kids to be close to their grandparents. Luckily I have some artifacts that I can use to explain to my children what came before them and hopefully a little of what my grandma has imparted onto me can be passed down to them.