Caitlin Jeffery

Exploring the depths of digital literature

Everyday Use

on February 1, 2013

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.

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12 responses to “Everyday Use

  1. vonepho says:

    I really liked “Everyday Use.” I appreciated the southern authentic qualities and the theme of heritage appreciation. Over the years, I’ve grown more distant from my Laotian heritage (comprehending/speaking less of my language; not participating often enough in celebratory events), so in way, this story has inspired me to be more conscientious of appreciating my heritage in ways I’ve neglected.

    I didn’t like Dee (Wangero). There was a vacuous, pretentious quality to her heritage appreciation. It’s too bad that she wasn’t enlightened by Maggie’s comment, “I can ‘member Grandma Dee without the quilts,” like their mother. This story reminded me of “The New Dress.” Dee and Mabel’s focus was on such silly, trivial aspects of an item; and if they were to look at the bigger picture, there would be much more value to what they need to know. For Dee, it’s a stronger, more authentic appreciation of her heritage; and for Mabel, that her new dress didn’t devalue who she was, but rather, her devaluing was self-inflicted. I guess it all comes down to perception.

    • theblume says:

      I agree Vone. I think that Dee had a false sense of what her heritage really was. Think her sister was more in touch with it then she was.

    • Funny I think Mabel is more like Maggie, self-conscious and unsure. Maggie was lucky that her mother stood up for her and that gave her confidence. Maybe that is what Mabel needed.

      • vonepho says:

        In terms of their view of self-worth, I think Mabel’s more like Maggie. I was referring to the isolated idea of misconstrued perception; paralleling that between Dee and Mabel. Dee viewed the quilt as a prize to her heritage – something lacking integrity and value – when it meant so much more to her heritage. Mabel viewed her dress as lowly, when it should have been viewed as something good and unique. My thought process is more on the lines that they should have thoughtful intentions versus such meaningless, empty attachments to those great items.

    • kbehre says:

      I absolutely love this connection between the two stories, Vone.

      • theblume says:

        I think that you could probably argue that both could be like Magel because I was thinking that Dee was more like Mabel. Reason being that Dee may have been acting ever so confident on the outside, but I think if we had a glimpse of what was going on in her head it wouldn’t sound so courageous. Like Mabel, I think Dee is trying to hard to impress.

  2. I had a similar reaction to the story. Most of my (mother’s) relatives live in Germany, and my father’s (American) side is virtually all deceased. I have connections to my hertiage, of course, but trying to keep alive the ancient traditions of a German farmland countryside in metropolitan American is pretty daunting. I liked that Dee’s mother views heritage as something that should most DEFINITELY be part of everyday use.

    • I think that is the point. Our traditions and heritage aren’t supposed to be things hung on a wall as decorations, but something that should be a part of who you are as a person.

      • kbehre says:

        Agreed. I love this sentence, from your blog post: “She sees her family heritage as decoration, a story, and the mother and Maggie see it as part of their lives.”

  3. I love your vision of Dee being the fire that burned Maggie. I almost wondered if Dee was the one who set the fire, since she hated their home and their life so much. The story almost made it seem like Dee was a whirlwind, blowing in and out of their lives and taking bits of them with her when she leaves. Unfortunately, she only takes what she think is valuable, completely missing that the people who made these items are the valuable part.

  4. carrieglovka says:

    I love your interpretation of Dee being the fire that burned Maggie. I also love how you incorporated their clothing as representative of the fire. Very interesting. Heritage and family history is extremely important to me. I can trade several lines back to 300-400 AD. I am always astounded and wonder what my ancestors lives were like. I can see the imporance of the mother in trying to preserve tradition. It is so important. I also can see that names are particularly important in preserving heritage. My daughter has my middle name, and I would be heartbroken if she tried to change it.

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