Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” reflects the intimate struggle within a poor African American family as they run up against monumental issues of history, heritage, and family values.
Dee in Alice Walker’s story, “Everyday Use,” is struggling to find her place in the world and who she is. This story reflects a transitional period in her life where tradition and heritage meet a new contemporary reality. Dee was raised among the poor and ignorant, and resented it. She believed that she was cut from a different cloth, and thus her environment wouldn’t dictate her place in life. And so seemingly out of a profound embarrassment Dee was driven to break the mold of history by tirelessly differentiating herself wherever she could. She shifted her behavior, her speech, her dress, and eventually even her name. Dee hated the house she grew up in, evident in her eyes as she watched her old house burn down, as if she alone willed it to be so. She also read to Maggie and her mother condescendingly, almost to reassure them of their ignorance, and validate her own superiority. Dee had a desire for the materialistic, such as dresses for school- demands her mother wasn’t accustomed to and money wasn’t available to support. Dee’s personality and standpoint just didn’t jive with her lowly position. But she was resolute and willful in her defiance to be different, propelled by the stark contrasts of her mother and younger sister. “At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was”(600).
Dee eventually left the home when her mother saved enough for her to go off to school, a rare, if not unheard of, opportunity in that family There she was unbound by, what she perceived to be, an ignorant and small existence coupled with a similar social standing. Dee explored who she was and became self-actualized; the new Dee that came home contrasted even more sharply within the environment in which she was raised- something that was not lost on her family. Suddenly she shows up at the old house, educated and modern- sporting a new “enlightened” name and boyfriend- bent on pretentiously instructing her mother on the finer points of her own heritage. The items in the house now become priceless antiques as opposed to worn out utilities. The benches her father made, complete with rump prints, suddenly bears some higher truth and is now of personal worth. The churn top is prized as well, for it is a family relic, and as such would make a beautiful centerpiece. Next, Dee prizes the quilts that are made from various sentimental pieces of fabric, a literal patchwork of family history. She will hang them, as they are too symbolic to actually use.
Dee believes these pieces tell of the plight of the African American, not of her own upbringing, which she would happily forget. So it is in the nature of her metamorphosis that is truly telling. The reader begins to understand that within Dee’s transformation there lies an austere disconnect. Indeed, she is proud of her new found enlightenment and heady liberation; she has found herself, or has she? Really, the only thing she has found is that which she sought, something different. In detaching from the old she has lost something very valuable, her true rooted and personal heritage, and gained very little in return. The irony of course is that the heritage Dee now prizes and extols in the abstract is the same that she turned her back on in the literal. Education has taught her of her history, but not her heritage. Dee has come to appreciate her own loftiness, relegating her former life to novelty.
Dee tells Maggie she has a choice. Her mother was never blessed with the privilege of choice, just as Maggie isn’t now; she is not her older sister. And what of that choice to strip Maggie of what is her rightful inheritance, all so she can polish her appearance as a learned, cultivated woman? Dee’s appreciation isn’t her family’s heritage, it’s the academic idea of her family’s heritage, and what it can do for her. Dee has lost the personal connection and the “use” of true personal history and the value therein. The mother realizes this and doesn’t allow Dee to take the quilts. Because while Dee can fill her life with the remnants of heritage as she laments, her younger sister will carry it on in earnest. Dee cannot tell her mother her life was in vain and that Maggie’s will be equally wasted, not until she can kill a bull calf with a sledge hammer anyway.