Born on February 9, 1944 in Eatonton, Georgia, Alice Malsenior Walker was the eighth and youngest child of poor sharecroppers. Her father’s great-great-great grandmother, Mary Poole was a slave, forced to walk from Virginia to Georgia with a baby in each arm. Walker is deeply proud of her cultural heritage. In addition to her literary talents Walker was involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, walking door-to-door promoting voter’s registration among the rural poor. Walker was present to see Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
“In August 1963 Alice traveled to Washington D.C. to take part in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Perched in a tree limb to try to get a view, Alice couldn’t see much of the main podium, but was able to hear Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” address.” (Alice Walker Biography) Walker is a vegetarian involved in many other issues, including nuclear proliferation, and the environment. Her insight to African American culture comes from her travel and experiences in both America and Africa. Walker is an activist regarding oppression and power, championing victims of racism and sexism. After her precedent setting, and controversial thirteen-year marriage to a white, Jewish, civil rights lawyer, Alice fell in love with Robert Allen, editor of “Black Scholar.” “She is currently living in Mendocino, California and is exploring her bi-sexuality.”
Alice Walker’s first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” was published the week her daughter was born. Walker received praise for this work, but also criticism for dealing too harshly with the male characters in the book. Walker’s best-known novel, “The Color Purple” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, and was made into a movie. Walker was the first black author honored by a Pulitzer. In Celie’s letters to God, she tells her story about her role as wife, mother, daughter, and sister, and other women who help shape her life. Walker portrays Africa in a positive way, and looks to it as a form of artistic and ideological expression. Walker was also criticized for her portrayal of men, often as violent rapists and wife beaters. Even as she portrays men, often in a bad light, she likes to focus on the strength of women. In her story, “Everyday Use” Alice Walker uses symbolism to address three main issues: racism, feminism and the black American’s search for cultural identity.
The story “Everyday Use” is set in the late ’60s or early ’70s and the setting is an impoverished home in Georgia. The critical analysis of “Everyday Use” from the web site Sistahspace presented the following interpretation:
This was a time, when African-Americans were struggling to define their personal identities in cultural terms. The term “Negro” had been recently removed from the vocabulary, and had been replaced with “Black.” There was “Black Power,” “Black Nationalism,” and “Black Pride.” Many blacks wanted to rediscover their African roots, and were ready to reject and deny their American heritage, which was filled with stories of pain and injustice. “Alice Walker is, as David Cowart argues, “[satirizing] the heady rhetoric of late ’60s black consciousness, deconstructing its pieties (especially the rediscovery of Africa) and asserting neglected values” (Cowart, 182). “The central theme of the story concerns the way in which an individual understands his present life in relation to the traditions of his people and culture.” (Sistahspace)
“Everyday Use” depicts a poor, illiterate black mother who rejects the shallow Black Power ideals of her older, outspoken daughter, Dee, in favor of the practical values of her younger, less privileged daughter, Maggie. Mama is the orator, and like griots from tribes in Africa, she perpetuates the oral traditions and history of the family. Mama’s upbeat self-image in
spite of little formal education, leads the reader to feel the intense pride she has in maintaining self-sufficiency. As discussed in David White’s critical analysis of (“‘Everyday Use”: Defining African-American Heritage), Mama’s lack of formal education does not prevent her from formulating a sense of heritage unattached to the “Black Power” movement held by her, purportedly educated, daughter Dee. Mama’s daughter, Dee (Wangero), has a much more superficial idea of heritage. She is portrayed as bright, beautiful, and self-centered. Maggie is the younger daughter, who lives with Mama. She is scared and ashamed, lying back in corners, cowering away from people. (White, David) (“‘Everyday Use’: Defining African-American Heritage.”) Maggie understands her heritage, and appreciates the significance of everyday things in the house. She is uneducated, and not in the least outspoken, and is unable to make eye contact. Maggie has stooped posture and walks with a shuffle, this, combined with her inability to look you in the eye, points to her vulnerability in dealing with newfound black rights.
Mama’s daughter Dee, who is portrayed as quite successful, has come home to visit and display her new African style heritage. Dee has adopted things African and has changed her name to Wangero. As she handles the everyday articles fashioned and used by previous generations, she believes they should be displayed to her white girlfriends, especially the old quilts made by Mama, her sister and her mother. Mama has promised the quilts to Maggie but Dee says, “Maggie does not understand their value and would just put them to everyday use.” (Walker, “Everyday Use”) Mama must decide which daughter should receive the family quilts. Finally, Mama realizes that her daughter, Maggie, has a closer connection with her view of family history than Dee does and gives her the quilts. This is the first time Mama has asserted any authority over Dee.
On a deeper level, Alice Walker is exploring the concepts of racism and the evolution of Black Society following the end of slavery, through the era of Martin Luther King, and finally to the Black Power movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Maggie, Mama, Dee/Wangaro and Hakim-a Barber, symbolize this. Mama is illiterate, because her school closed when she was in the second grade. The role of black Americans in the late 1920s is best illustrated by Mama’s line, “School was closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions that they do now…” (Walker, “Everyday Use”) When Mama describes the old house, burning down it symbolizes the ending of slavery and the decreed civil rights.
The scars that Mamma’s daughter Maggie, bear are representative of the pain of the past and difficulty in moving from the role of subservience to equality. Maggie has difficulty looking “you” in the eye just as the American Negro had difficulty moving from the subservient role to peer in dealings with whites. Maggie’s head down on the chest at first appears as an as shame for her scars from the house fire, but they come to symbolize a person caught in the old black paradigm, unable to embrace newfound freedoms in society. The fire of slavery has damaged Maggie and she resigns herself to a transitional cultural existence, neither old nor new.
Mama represents the ideals of Martin Luther King through her dream of going on the Johnny Carson show to meet Dee. She embraces the idea of this fantasy and takes pleasure in replaying it in her mind. Ultimately, Mamma is thrust back to the reality that it will never happen, just as she seems to resign herself to the fact that King’s dreams are not real for her generation but for the next.
The story has an underlying feministic weave. There is a noticeable lack of the mention of any father figure in the story and even the role of Dee’s companion, Hakim-a barber is minimized. “Everyday Use” makes no mention of a father for either of the daughters. The strength of Mamma is so compelling that it overshadows any need for a male in the house. This symbolically illustrates the black woman as the underpinning of the African American family. The message is that black women have always been strong but have never asserted that strength.
Mama describes herself as “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” (Walker, “Everyday Use”) Mama’s upbeat self-image in spite of little formal education leads the reader to feel the intense pride she has in maintaining self-sufficiency. Mama does the hard work a man would, if he were around. Mama is a feminist, not manifested by protesting for equal rights or male bashing, but by virtue of strong will and determination exemplified by doing what it takes to provide and care for the family. The male presence is absent from Mama’s home. The only exceptions are the memories of hand constructed household items. No mention is made of a father. He is absent in memory, financial support, nor is he even mentioned in the story at all.
Walker’s story goes to great lengths to describe Dee’s outgoing personality, speech and her clothing and accessories. Contrasting Dee’s outgoing personality is Hakim-a barber’s it minimized, when after arriving in the car his only words and actions are an attempt to explain and pronounce his African name and a feeble attempt to perform an unknown ritualistic hand shake. Hakim-a barber illustrates his lack of provider skills when he said “…But farming and raising cattle is not my style.” (Walker, “Everyday Use”) He provides nothing of the daily substance required to feed or provide for a family (“Everyday Use.”) Alice Walker is intentionally vague regarding Dee’s, relationship with boyfriend / husband Hakim-a barber. Hakim-a barber seems relegated to chauffer and conspirator enamored with the illusion of Black Power. Hakim’s character is shallow and without essence, thus relegating the male to a third class position in the family. This is likely a reflection of Walker’s disdain for the superficial actions of black men during the Black Power movement in the 1960’s. Although they go through the outward motions and threaten and shout, they still depend on the women as they always have. Walker infers that the women are the true source of inspiration and strength.
Finally, Walker imparts a third theme, which is that of cultural heritage and what it should mean to the African-American Black of the 1960’s and 1970’s. “Walker’s main purpose in the story seems to be to challenge the Black Power movement and black people in general, to acknowledge and respect their American heritage.” (White, David) (“‘Everyday Use”: Defining African-American Heritage.”) The fact that Dee/Wangero has two names is a symbol of the young person’s confusion in the search for identity with a culture that is acceptable to them. Since they are ashamed of their role in the American past, they attempt to throw off all reference to the Negro culture, in favor of the African culture, but neither seems to have total credibility. They do not understand the need to find the blend between the two in order to move forward.
Mama struggles to decide which daughter should receive the family quilt. Quilts have a special symbolic meaning to Mama. When she moves up to touch the quilts, she is reaching out to touch the people whom the quilts represent. On a deeper level, Alice Walker is exploring the concept of heritage as it applies to American blacks, particularly women. As in other works, Walker uses quilts to symbolize the ancient bond between women. In “Everyday Use”, the quilts serve the same function in this poor black family as the family paintings or photo albums might have in a white household. In the persona of Wangero, Dee strives to reject her American heritage and take on an African one, but in the persona of Dee, she wants to be like her white girlfriends and display her American heritage. Mama sees hanging the quilts on the wall as Dee distancing herself from her true past. Mama cannot trust Dee to carry on the traditions established by past generations of family members. Walker weaves in her insights into African and American heritage to write “Everyday use.” Finally, Mama realizes that her daughter Maggie has a closer connection with her view of family history than Dee does, and gives her the quilts, following her assertion of authority over Dee
Dee takes pictures of her Mamma and sister Dee but is always using a backdrop of a cow or the poverty-stricken shack they call home. This is indicative of Dee holding herself in a superior class of Black from her family. One can almost envision Dee passing the pictures around to her friends and saying, “See I achieved my status from such humble beginnings.” Dee shows the extreme side of Black Civil rights, “Black Panthers” who reject their American culture, seeking to reinvent a heritage with proud African roots. That fact Dee is rejecting hundreds of years of her heritage, for one that is fabricated is disconcerting to Mama. Dee projects so little insight to her American heritage that when asked what she would do with the family quilts she replies, It is clear from Maggie’s statement that her “everyday use” of the quilts would be as a reminder of her Grandma Dee. Dee’s primary use for the quilts would be to hang them on the wall as a reminder of her superior social and economic status. (White, David. “‘Everyday Use’: Defining African-American Heritage.) This parallels her with middle class girlfriend’s family portraits hanging on the wall. Dee will only observe her family heritage, but Maggie will ast as a cultural role model every day.
Alice Walker is effective in weaving symbolism into much of her writing and “Everyday Use” is no exception. Walker possesses the ability to write on a multifaceted level that is simple but purposeful with profound underlying themes. Her style of writing allows her to convey her messages to her readers, each having the possibility of gaining as much as their intellect and backgrounds will permit. She avoids polarization, but challenges her literary audience with this symbolic writing style. In addressing topics, that she is both knowledgeable and passionate about Alice Walker uses symbolism to address three issues: Racism, Feminism and the Search for Cultural Identity.
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