Preserving Family Traditions and Cultural Legacies:

Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and Individual Identity

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In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” the conflict between a desire for personal fulfillment and the need to honor one’s tradition is dramatized in the conflict shown between two daughters, Maggie and Dee. Maggie has never had a desire to leave home and seems content to live with her mother. Mama is a woman who has grown up poor, tough, but also very deferential to white people, because of the profound societal injustices she has endured. “Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head fumed in whichever way is farthest from them” (Walker 1). In contrast, her other daughter Dee is brave, goes away to college, and seems to have a confidence her sister lacks. But this comes at the cost of a break with Dee’s family. Even when Dee comes back to show appreciation for the African-American traditions she spurned in high school, she regards them as objects to be displayed for social esteem, rather than values their everyday use. However, it is important not to generalize Dee’s experience for all people, particularly today, where it has become easier for people to negotiate blended identities.

It is true that overall, the Walker story does not paint a very hopeful picture of the ability to preserve cultural traditions and move forward in society, despite the fact that this is in many ways the American Dream. Dee initially views her family tradition and cultural legacy as something that inhibits the full expression of her sense of self. Once she loses this sense, she can never regain it, even though she tries to do so by framing her ancestors’ quilts. It is Maggie who retains the ability to make more quilts, despite the fact she is unlikely to ever get an education or move out of her childhood community.

Walker portrays Dee as superficial and only interested in Afrocentric culture because liberal, college whites are now appropriating it in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, to seem cool. But on a personal level, I sympathize with Dee, because Maggie’s fear and lack of daring shows that simply replicating the traditions of the past is not enough. Dee’s struggle shows the challenges of negotiating a blended identity, one which I have personally felt myself as a multiracial individual who embraces many ethnicities within her family and life. Walker suggests that showing respect for her culture and heritage is merely Dee’s way of fitting into college and showing off in front of her new boyfriend. However, as an author Walker does not show much compassion for the difficulties Dee may be facing as an African-American who is the first child to attend college, perhaps in a largely white student body made up of people who are much more comfortable in an academic environment.

My father is Hispanic and my mother is Caucasian (French, German and Polish). They met one other while they were both serving in the United States Navy, working in the same job (electronic technician). Unlike Dee, neither of them ever felt that they had to choose between home and moving into a new future, and both of my parents seem comfortable in their cultural identities. My grandparents accepted my parents’ marriage with open arms. The U.S. Navy’s own culture was very accepting of diversity. Unlike Dee and her college environment, my parents were surrounded by friends who were accepting, and as long as people in the Navy worked hard, their background did not matter.

Walters’ story suggests that people who are trapped between two cultures like Dee have to put on a fake persona, like Dee uses her African heritage to seem “cool” in front of her boyfriend and the presumably white students who make up the majority of their college. But this says a great deal about Dee’s insecurity as a person. Although Maggie is portrayed as the shy sister, in her own way Dee may be just as uncertain of herself, even though she hides it with false bravado. In contrast, my parents felt assured that they would be loved and accepted no matter what, and going into the multicultural environment of the Navy did not mean that they would lose their identities, just acquire a new one. As the poet Adrienne Rich writes in her poem entitled “Delta:” “…my story flows in more than one direction…with its five fingers spread” (Rich 5; 8).

People’s stories do not necessarily have to be singular and fixed. As in Rich’s poem, their stories flowed from more than one direction. Rich presents a much more positive and fluid view of cultural legacies, much like a flowing river. Within my own life, I see my father’s, mother’s, and even the Navy’s culture blended within my own. I too have joined the Navy, given the example set by my parents and my feelings of pride in the work ethic it inspired. Rather than seeking to identify and take pride in only one culture like Maggie, I can take pride in many cultures. Rather than objectify a single, fixed component of myself like Dee, I can adapt to new circumstances and see my culture as something constantly shifting and changing with both my needs and the needs of society.

In contrast to Walker’s story, culture does not have to be chosen in a singular or either/or fashion. Passing down trinkets or heirlooms and preserving them does not mean that people confuse the spiritual values of community and family with those objects like Dee in the story. Even if I cannot make quilts like Maggie in the story, this does not mean I do not honor the handicrafts of the traditions that are preserved in the various family mementos that have been given to me over the course of my life. I hope I will be able to make more of the same and pass them down to my own children someday.

Walker’s story is very much a product of her time. She was writing during the American Civil Rights movement, when there was a great deal of conflict between old and new, between younger African-Americans who had benefited from its legacy like Dee an older people like Mama who had not and felt a mixture of resentment and awe at the accomplishments of their children. Walker’s humorous story seems very schematic as a result, but as the real, lived experience of people such as Robyn Kelley suggests, as exemplified in Kelley’s essay, “The People in Me,” very few people resemble such stereotypes in reality: “My mother never fit the ‘black momma’ media image. A beautiful, demure, light brown woman, she didn’t drink, smoke, curse, or say things like ‘Lawd Jesus’ or ‘hallelujah,’ nor did she cook chitlins or gumbo” (Kelley 5). Instead, Kelley writes, her mother was a vegetarian who did yoga.

As a half-Hispanic, half-European career member of the U.S. Navy and a former military brat, I similarly defy such conventional categories and seek to make my own new ones. My identity categories do not define me, but nor do I shun them like Dee did when she was younger. I feel confident of who I am, where my ancestors have come from, and where I am going. To embrace who we are, I believe, means embracing who are family members were in the past, but it also means understanding that they were human beings who were not solely defined by a unitary culture and lifestyle. People are always complex and always have been, both past and present.

Works Cited

Kelley, Robin G. “The People in Me.” Colorlines (1999), 5. Web. 24 Sept 2018.

Rich, Adrienne. “Delta.” Poetry Society of America. Web. 24 Sept 2018.

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Web. 24 Sept 2018. 60620&FileName=everyday_use_full-text.pdf