Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” is about a mother who has two daughters, one who has remained at home and appreciates their family heirlooms because of their connection to the home and their family, and another daughter who has become interested in the Black Nationalist movement and who looks at the same articles and appreciates them more for their aesthetic appeal than their deeper meaning. Through this story, Walker makes a larger statement about the Black Nationalist movement to which daughter Dee belongs. She claims to want to honor her African heritage by adopting a more ethnic sounding name and by holding on to items which have meaning to her history as a descendant of slaves. This is a peripheral connection to her heritage and has no true meaning. Dee desires of her family treasures in order to fit in with a group, not because she has any true feeling about her circumstances or the plight of the African-American community.
The began as a tangential occurrence to the Civil Rights Movement. While certain men like Martin Luther King, Jr. And Medger Evers were preaching equality and nonviolent resistance, there was another faction gaining support which advocated violent revolution against the white majority. Among other things, the Black Nationalists believed that the United States and most all European nations had essentially racist attitudes and that their governments only enforced these prejudicial views. The group demanded the continuation of segregation and separation from white peoples (Skyers). Many critics argued that the movement was really a mask for black supremacy.
When the story begins, the narrator is preparing for a visit from her daughter Dee who has been away at college. The second daughter, Maggie, is far more silent and less assuming than her sister. Throughout Dee’s stay at Mama’s house, she goes about trying to demand the family heirlooms which her mother has kept over the many years. When Dee makes her entrance, it is all about her visual impression. She is dressed in what is considered traditional African wear. Accompanying her is a man who Mama refers to as “Asalamalakim.” This is a traditional Muslim greeting. Everything about this couple is concentrated on their appearances. She is dressed in traditional garb and even demands that her family refer to her by her newly adopted name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. The girl was named for her grandmother and for other family members who were named Dee. Yet, she does not see this name as having any meaning and changes it to what her peers say is respecting her African heritage. Dee does not have any true affinity for her culture. The only things that mater are the opinions of her peers and the appearances.
Just as Dee gives up her family name for the more Africanized Wangero, so too many college students and African-American people of the ’60s and ’70s adopted names that found their origin in African culture. It was part of the indoctrination into the group that to be accepted, a person had to reject the name, particularly the surname, which had been put upon their ancestors during slavery. In doing so, they are attempted to reclaim their African heritage even at the cost of ignoring their familial culture. Dee is named for her blood relatives, strong women who her mother admired. This familial connection has no meaning because it does not have the same meaning for her peers.
Another example of this is the quilts that serve to enact the climax of the story. Dee, now Wangero, demands the quilt that has been passed down throughout their family. She doesn’t want any of the other quilts that are in the home; only the one that matters to Maggie. Dee is indignant that Maggie would actually use these quilts on a bed, would actually put the quilts to the use that they were intended. Instead, Dee insists that the quilts should be hung on the wall as a decoration. Mama notes that before she had offered Dee several of the handmade quilts, but she had rejected them because they weren’t stylish at the time. This is Dee’s problem and, through Dee, Walker says this is the problem of everyone involved in the Black Nationalist Movement. They are interested in symbols of heritage only for how they are viewed by their peers. They don’t care about the true value of a thing.
Dee’s desire to take the quilt and hang it up for decorative purpose rather than everyday use is symptomatic of one of the other principles of the Black Nationalist Movement. One of the principles is that art and politics are inseparable concepts. Through art and aesthetics, political statements can be made. For Dee, the quilt is not an object which can be used to keep a body warm. Instead, it is an icon of the history of enslavement. Thus it has value to her as a bragging piece to her nationalist peers. She can point to this quilt and state its merit as an icon of American slavery and gives her affectation to African culture more substance. To her, the fact that it was the property of her family for generations does not matter. The only value the item has is what is given to it from other nationalists.
The discourse that occurs in Alice Walker’s story is a metaphorical representation of the debate going on between those involved in the Civil Rights Movement and those involved in the Black Nationalist Movement. Whereas one desired nothing more than equality and fair treatment, the other demanded better. One group supports the community and strives to create a better world with what has been given, the other is covetous and can only think in terms of constant satisfaction.
doComo. “Notes on the Black Cultural Movement.” 2011. Web. Nov. 2011.
Skyers, Sophia. “Marcus Garvey and the Philosophy of Black Pride.” 1982. Print.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” In Love and Trouble. 1973. Print.