Contrast and Irony Used to Reveal Cultural Conflict
In “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
Review by Mark Anderson, 2014
Link to PDF of Everyday Use: Everyday Use
A mother has two daughters. Fate has dealt them very different cards and choices have been made that have taken them down very different roads. Their characters have changed so much that they are almost not recognizable as sisters. Alice walker tells a story from a mother’s point of view of a visit from her daughter Dee, who moved away to go to school and comes to represent many qualities of another culture foreign to her heritage. These qualities are contrasted with her sister Maggie who has remained at home and represents many enduring qualities of her heritage. The mother represents a rich heritage available to both daughters, but embraced by only one, and cast aside by the other. Walker begins itemizing a list of traits that are associated with one culture; power, privilege, and racism, that are in contrast to another culture; true beauty, sincerity and respect. The contrast between the daughters represents much more than sibling rivalry. The contrast is between two rival world systems.
The setting is the family home, a three room shack that Dee is very ashamed of. There was a former home, also a shack in a pasture, that burned down and Maggie was severely burned and left scarred from that fire. The story is told from the point of view of the mother, with family name Johnson, referred to as “Mama” and refers to herself as “colored.” She describes the yard they are sitting in waiting for the arrival of Dee, “It is not just a yard. It is an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor…” I visited Southern India and met people who lived in shacks with dirt floors and no running water. Most Americans really do not understand the poverty that much of the world lives in. I observed the children from these homes at their schools and they were all dressed in clean school uniforms and the girls all had fragrant flowers for their hair. There is something deeply beautiful about the dignity of a mother so poor she lives in a shack yet daily makes sure that her daughter has clean clothes and flowers for her hair. When I visited a home the clay floor was swept as clean as any tile floor in America, so that we could sit on the floor and eat. When I read Walker’s description I immediately knew the kind of home and mother she was introducing. Both daughters have come from these humble beginnings. Both have the opportunity to embrace true richness of in spite of poverty. And also our modern world has emerged from the same beginnings but hegemonic systems have developed that are ignorant of human heritage.
Walker’s characterization of her daughters is incremental with each in contrast to the other. Dee is introduced as “her,” then “Dee,” her given name, and then her chosen name, “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.” Dee holds life in the palm of her hand and “no” is a word she doesn’t accept from others. Maggie waits nervously in the corner for her sister’s arrival, ashamed of her burn scars, “eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe.” This initial description lets us know that Dee represents power.
The issue of power is connected to race in a symbolic dream. Mama imagines being reunited with her daughter Dee on a television program. She envisions her daughter being grateful for her heritage and they live happily in peace. But she says this is just a fantasy and that peace is not possible between these worlds. In her reality the child comes to “curse out and insult each other.” The television host is the epitome of whiteness, “Johnny Carson.” Dee is described as someone who could “look anyone in the eye.” And this is in contrast with herself, “Who could even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye.” “Hesitation” was not part of Dee’s nature. At this point there is a critical question, is Walker alluding to whites in particular, or is she referring to a cultural system that is typified by and lead by whites? Is it the whites, or is it hostile ideologies and an oppressive system?
The mother gives physical descriptions of herself and her daughters. She describes herself as, “a large, big boned woman, with rough, man-working hands.” She works in a slaughter house, can break ice for water, kill and cook her own meals, and can kill a cow and have it cleaned and hung before night fall. She tells of this proudly because she knows that in her world these are credentials for survival. This kind of skill is a valuable commodity in some worlds. However, in a modern world, in today’s white world she would be discarded as worthless. We already know that Maggie is scarred and timid and now we are told she is thin, with a pink skirt and red blouse. Dee is “lighter” which must mean skin color since Maggie is thin. Dee’s power is now associated with race; preference for lighter skinned people. She also has “nicer hair and a fuller figure” than Maggie. Dee’s beauty is described as she arrives and exits the car, “the first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style” (19). Dee has attained privilege through her beauty and light skin, but Walker sees that privilege it as part of corrupt system that disregards people of true beauty and makes objects out women. Dee may have transcended her class but she has betrayed her heritage. Walker challenges the values of Dee’s world as superficial.
Education is on the list of power and privilege. Ironically, Dee received her education as a gift because it was Mama, Maggie, and the church that raised the money to send her off to school. But somehow Dee is arrogant about knowledge and disdains her family. Dee’s education alludes to a foreign world. She would read to her family, “forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice…like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.” This allusion is to a long history of a racist policy of not allowing blacks to be educated and whites controlling the educational system. Education and power are connected in our world. We see advertisements from colleges that seem to say, “Get some privilege with an education.” Biographically, Alice Walker was the one in her family who was sent away for education. Since we are looking at personal character it seems implied that it is the pride or arrogance in someone’s heart that turns education ugly. And it is human pride that turns the educational system into a system of oppression. Dee looks down on her family and has used education as a resource for arrogance. She represents a system of values that has disdain for simple people. In contrast Maggie also reads, “She stumbles along good-naturedly but can’t see well. Like good looks and money, quickness has passed her by.” The contrast between the two increases because Maggie will marry, a man named John Thomas who has green teeth and an earnest face. We are about to meet Dee’s boyfriend, who will probably enjoy her but not marry her. Maybe education did not help very much after all.
Dee and her boyfriend arrive in their car. Wealth and cars were associated previously, “a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car.” Dee has expensive jewelry; gold earrings down to her shoulders, bracelets dangling. Mama’s financial poverty is evident in the shack she lives in, it doesn’t have real windows, “just holes cut out.” After describing her house Mama says, “when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down.” She has told of Dee’s disdain for the house. When the old house burned Dee seemed to enjoy it. Dee’s disdain for her childhood in poverty may be understandable, but Walker uses it as symptomatic of a larger issue of class. Financial power is associated with the aristocratic class and the bourgeoisie who seek the power of the aristocracy.
Dee and her friend offer greetings with African words, her new African name Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Dee explains that she does not want to be named any longer after the people who oppress her. Mama explains that Dee was named after her aunt Dicie, and she was named after Grandma Dee. Wangero insists that this name must have come from a slaveholder somewhere in their history but Mama believes that “Dee” could be traced to pre-Civil War. After dinner Wangero appears to be searching for some quaint relics from her past to display at home. She finds a butter churn and says it will make a nice decoration and claims it without asking- no one can say no to her. The churn is plain but has rich family history.
She intends to claim some handmade quilts to hang for display. After rummaging through a trunk she emerges with two quilts that were made from dresses that Grandma Dee wore and a piece of Great Grandpa Ezra’s military uniform, a “faded blue piece” indicating he was a Union soldier in the Civil War. These quilts were very rich in family heritage. Dee and Mama argue over Dee’s right to claim them and Mama takes a stand saying they are promised to Maggie for her wedding. Dee was told no and says, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.” And Mama says, “I hope she will!” The argument continues and Wangero is still holding the quilts. Maggie offers to give up the quilts saying that she can remember her grandma without them. At that Mama’s spirit is riled up, “…something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me…Then I did something I never had done before…snatched the quilts our of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap.” Upon leaving Wangero says, “You just don’t understand.” Mama replies “What don’t I understand?” And Wangero says, “Your heritage.” Departing she kisses Maggie and says, “You ought to try making something of yourself, too, Maggie.” When Dee claims that her mother does not understand her heritage it is perfect irony because it was her who does not understand her heritage. And when she tells her sister to make something out of herself it shows that her values are part of a corrupt system that does not understand anything about what is truly valuable in life.
Walker portrays two value systems that are in deep opposition. There is a strong racial connection between whites and the oppressive system. However, because Dee is a person of color who has adopted the values of the oppressive system she is alluding to the core issues behind the race problems in our world. She could easily have gone on a race rant, but she sees beyond that. She also places a great moral challenge before her readers to make a choice about values. She offers the quilt to the daughter who had truly chosen to honor her heritage.
Copyright: Mark Anderson 2014
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use”. 1973. Print.