Heritage: The Key to One’s Future in "Everyday Use"

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Professor Martin

English 1302

06 December 2009

Heritage: The Key to One’s Future in “Everyday Use”

In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” which was published after the Civil Rights Movement and served as an impetus to Walker’s writing, Walker stresses how African Americans must never forget their heritage. On the surface, the story is about the life of a poor mother with her two daughters, Dee and Maggie; however, a deeper meaning lies behind this tale; it is a reminder of the importance of one “getting back to one’s roots.” While Walker uses the quilts as symbols of how African Americans suffered prior to achieving total freedom, she also strategically incorporates animal imagery and non-verbal language to further illustrate the depths of the agony of their past. With the analysis of her work, these facets allow her readers to ascertain the rhetorical meaning behind her words.

First and foremost, the setting starts in a pasture. During the period of slavery, African Americans often worked in fields or plantations and were held prisoners. Not only this, but they were treated as animals, which worked from dusk till dawn under harsh conditions. Her comparison of the characters to animals also allows the readers to understand the mind-set of each person. Mama, the narrator, describes herself as “large;” she also says, “fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day” (Walker 298). As Wangero steps out of the car to take their picture, a cow appears in the background. Mama can be compared to this cow which is strong and resilient, These characteristics were a must for slaves in order to survive their oppressors. Furthermore, Mama is analogous to a cow in the statement, “Cows are soothing and slow and don’t bother you, unless you try to milk them the wrong way” (Walker 299). Gruesser claims Dee is the person who milked the cow the wrong way when she demands the quilts promised to Maggie, which causes Mama to snatch the quilts and hand them to Maggie (183).

In contrast, Maggie is described as shy and aloof; as the narrator states while meeting Asalamalakim, “Maggie’s hand is as limp as a fish, and probably as cold” (Walker 300). Upon his and Wangero’s arrival, Maggie tries to escape into the house, just like a fish trying to escape a fisherman’s hook or a net, which resembles a slave who is trying to escape their doom. The narrator further describes Maggie’s shyness as “a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over” and having a “hangdog look” (Walker 298,303). Maggie’s attitude was a common slave trait; they could not look at their masters in the eye as it was a rebellious sign. However, Gruesser argues Maggie can be compared to a cow: “She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me” (Walker 300). Although I disagree, Gruesser suggests the word “cowering” indicates which Walker is comparing her to a cow from the word “cowering” (184). As previously stated, cows are strong and resilient; they are not known to “cower.”

In addition to these comparisons, Walker uses the symbol of a sheep to portray Wangero as stated in this sentence, “her hair stands erect like wool on a sheep” (Walker 302). Walker does not necessarily mean the positive quality of sheep, such as gentleness. She is implying Wangero is a “sheep in wolf’s clothing.” Wangero’s outside image is far from the inside for it is plainly superficial. Walker intentionally portrays Wangero as a sheep, which is generally white. Sheep are parallel to the white man, and the white man terrorized the slaves. In a way, Wangero is Mama’s and Maggie’s tormenter—she preys on them. HERE, THE STUDENT COULD HAVE FURTHER EXPLAINED THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THIS POINT AND THE OVERALL POINT ABOUT ANIMAL IMAGERY.

Animal imagery is not the only symbol Walker uses for her readers to understand the story; the quilts are the most obvious symbols of African American women’s heritage. During the period of slavery, African American women sewed quilts out of necessity; it was a way to keep them warm. They had to make the quilts out of materials which were readily accessible and free, such as scraps. As critic Elizabeth Piedmont-Martin says in her article, each piece of the quilt represents different scraps seemingly unimportant, but utilized in a manner which unites them to tell a tale. She further argues quilts are “useful for describing African American women’s lives, which traditional history and literature have often ignored and misrepresented” (1). African American women’s lives were torn apart by their oppressors and the women had to rely on each other for support. Each piece in a quilt signifies an African American woman, when pieced together they become one forming a closer bond, but some people like Dee or Wangero cannot see the importance of the quilt’s characteristics.

Moreover, Wangero wants the quilts to hang as artwork to show her newfound persona. She was offered the quilts when she went to college, but declined them because they were out of style. Now she is back and a “different” person, she feels as if the quilts are priceless. Dee, being a hypocrite, wants the quilts to display her Afrocentric ways and does not truly understand the significance of these items; she is more interested in the high social status image, but does not completely follow the teachings. She shows this hypocrisy when she eats the chitterlings, despite the meat being “unclean.” As Piedmont-Martin declares in the remark by Mama, “as though…that was the only thing you could do with quilts.” She observes Dee only sees art in a predictable manner, which is in a frame (2). Little does Wangero know, her ancestors possibly sewed these quilts as an outlet to the cruelty they endured, for slave women were treated inhumanely; they were oftentimes verbally and physically abused by their white owners.

In addition, quilting was a way African American women could take their minds off of their problems. Without a diversion their lives would have sunk into the depths of depression, which their predicament would have led themselves to. As Piedmont-Martin quoted from Walker’s essay titled In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, “ Walker asks us to consider what would have become of black women artists who lived in slavery and oppression. Would they have been driven numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release?” (2). African American women had to make the best of what they had, which was not much. Quilting was crucial for their survival.

However, Wangero has a different perspective of these quilts. Her whole point is to use them as fashionable items, and becomes angry when Mama tells her she cannot have them for they are promised to Maggie. Wangero states Maggie would not know what to do with the quilts and even put them to “everyday use” (Walker 302). For Maggie, the everyday use of the quilts is significant because she will be able to remember her ancestors as she uses them daily, but like always, she chooses not express how she really feels to Wangero.

Although Maggie is represented as an introvert, as Gruesser claims, "she is the oral historian of the family" (184). She is fully aware of who made the items with sentimental value in their home. She proves this when Dee expresses how she wants the churn and the dasher. Dee wants these items as artifacts she could add to her home, not knowing its history. Being completely insensitive she says, "I can use the churn top as a centerpiece of the alcove table," she said, sliding a plate over the churn, "and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher" (Walker 302). Maggie is the one who informs her who carved the dasher, which is their Aunt Dee's first husband, further proving Wangero's interest is only for display and not for its value.

Just like the churn and the dasher, Wangero takes interest in the quilts, but once again for the wrong reason. Maggie is the one who should own them for Maggie knows the history of the quilts and how they were created from scraps of Grandma Dee's dresses over half a century ago. She also recognizes the snippets of Grandpa Jarrell's paisley shirts and Great Grandpa Ezra's Civil War uniform which were used to create them; therefore, making the quilts irreplaceable treasures.

Though Maggie knows what the quilts are worth, she still chooses to give them to Wangero, as if she has already accepted defeat. How could she win this battle? Dee has never been told "no.” As Mama describes Maggie she says, "like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her" (Walker 303). This is another resemblance to slave mentality. They had no choice but to accept their fate. Maggie's unselfish gesture is what finally makes Mama realize how Wangero does not deserve the quilts. She realizes even though Maggie is scarred inside and out, she is the better person, and is the one who deserves these precious items more than anybody. Maggie’s silence allows Mama to feel her pain.

Just as slaves remained silent for so long, Walker uses the power of silent actions to prove her point. Maggie is soundless for most of the story; she is always in the background, but barely makes noise. Just like in the picture taken by Wangero, she is cowering over her mother. She seems to just "go with the flow." However, is Maggie really silent? Maggie may not have had many words, for she spoke not in words, but in her actions. As soon as Wangero asks Mama for the quilts, something falls in the kitchen, where Maggie is, and the door slams. Mama realizes Maggie overheard their conversation. Although Maggie does not say a word, Mama hears her message loud and clear and proceeds to tell Wangero she cannot have the quilts as they are for Maggie when she gets married. At this moment Mama recognizes Wangero will only be using the quilts to hang them as pieces of art and she immediately snatches the quilts and places them on Maggie's lap leaving her "mouth open." Critic Nancy Tuten states, “Mama's gifts of the quilts to Maggie empowers the previously silenced and victimized daughter” (125). Maggie has always played second fiddle to her sister. Mama’s deed finally gives her the feeling she too is important.

Just like Maggie, Mama does not need to say a word, as her snatching the quilts was loud enough and even follows this up with an unforeseen gesture. As Tuten says, "right before taking the quilts out of Dee's hands, Mama tells us, ‘I did something I never had done before,’ the "something" she refers to is essentially two actions: Mama embraces Maggie and says "no" to Dee for the first time" (125). Her gesture is reciprocated by an angry Wangero leaving the room. As Tuten believes, "Mama's actions, not her words, silence the daughter who has, up to this point, used language to control others and separate herself from the community (125). Mama tells us Dee turns and leaves the room "without a word" (Walker 303). This is analogous to the white man, now defeated and angry because they were losing control of their slaves. Furthermore, the white man realizes there was nothing they could do to stop them.

However, before Wangero is silenced by Mama's reaction, she has always been the vocal and strong person. She says, "She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was not in her nature" (Walker 298). Her aggressiveness secluded her from the world. When Mama tells Maggie Dee wrote to her stating she would never take any of her friends to their home, Maggie cannot believe Dee has friends. Dee has been very forceful with her words causing people to elude her as Mama states, "She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice" (Walker 299). As Tuten believes, "verbal skills equips Dee to oppress and manipulate others and to isolate herself" (125). Towards the end of the story, Mama calls her Miss Wangero; the word Miss indicates Mama no longer knows her, which essentially leads to her separation from Mama and Maggie.

As this divide occurs, Mama and Maggie represent slaves who eventually break free from their owners, and the bitter Wangero resembles these owners. She is a manipulative person who intimidates Maggie and Mama. In the end, she is resentful because she did not prevail and no longer has the control she once had, just as the white people who lost their battle and had to let go of their slaves.

”Everyday Use” is a story which symbols are used to convey the mental stumbling blocks still being affected by the inferiority complex of black people, which is a result from their subhuman treatment from the past. Though not mentioned in the story, the subtext of this argument is still dominant through the use of symbols and the attitudes communicated by Walker’s characters. The lives led by the characters are accentuated by the tools which allow them to function on a daily basis, but when the very tools they use are banished to the realm of art or the ways of old, this eventually will relegate them to mean nothing. This is why the story is central and universal to the black experience, because all cultures have tools for everyday use and when there is no appreciation of what shaped the past, then how can one navigate the future?
Works Cited

Bloom, Harold . Alice Walker Bloom's Major Novelists . Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers

2000. N. pag. Print.

Gruesser, John. "Walker's 'Everyday Use'." Explicator. 61.3 (Spring 2003): 183-185. Rpt. in

Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. 97. Detroit: Gale, 2007. 183-185. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Web. 18 Oct. 2009.

Piedmont-Marton, Elisabeth. "An overview of ‘Everyday Use’." Short Stories for Students

Detroit: Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Web. 23 Oct. 2009.

"Quilting." Encyclopedia of African American Society. 2005. SAGE Publications. 15 Nov. 2009.

Tuten, Nancy. "Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use.'." The Explicator. 51.2 (Winter 1993): 125

Web. 23 Oct. 2009.

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Making Literature Matter 4th Edition. Ed. Karen S. Henry

Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. 297-303. Print.

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