Interpreting Heritage in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker

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Updated: Dec 04, 2023
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Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” presents readers with a seemingly simple tale that delves deep into the complexities of heritage, identity, and familial bonds. Through the interactions of its three main characters – Mama, Dee, and Maggie – Walker paints a vivid picture of how individuals interpret and value their cultural heritage differently.

Set in a humble rural setting, the story kicks off with Mama and Maggie’s anticipation of Dee’s visit. Dee, having left for the city to pursue education and a modern life, returns with a new name, “Wangero,” and a newfound appreciation for her African roots.

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This homecoming sets the stage for a significant confrontation, one that revolves around two hand-stitched quilts, emblematic of the family’s heritage. While Dee desires to take them away and display them as artifacts of her past, Maggie, the shy younger sister, intends to use them in the traditional sense, as blankets.

This quarrel over quilts might seem superficial at first, but Walker uses it masterfully to explore the nuanced ways people relate to their heritage. Dee views her background as something to be exhibited, an artifact from her past that adds to her new urban identity. Her desire to hang the quilts, rather than use them, demonstrates her detachment from the actual lived experiences and traditions of her ancestors. Her renaming herself “Wangero” further showcases this detachment, as she rejects the name passed down through generations for something she believes to be more authentically African.

In contrast, Maggie and Mama have a more grounded, everyday connection to their roots. They appreciate their heritage as a living entity, passed down through stories, shared experiences, and practical uses of cultural items like the quilts. For them, the quilts aren’t just fabric; they’re memories woven with threads of family tales and shared moments. Maggie, having learned the art of quilting from her grandmother, sees the quilts as functional items that carry the warmth of her ancestors, to be used and cherished in daily life.

The contrasting views on heritage become evident when Dee asserts that Maggie would be “backward” enough to put the quilts to “everyday use.” This statement captures the crux of the story – the juxtaposition of seeing heritage as either a fashionable accessory or as an intrinsic part of daily life.

One can’t discuss “Everyday Use” without acknowledging Walker’s subtle critique of the superficial ways the Black Power and Pan-African movements of the 1960s and 1970s sometimes approached African culture. Dee’s renaming and her boyfriend’s disdainful remarks about the African American church hint at the author’s reservations about completely rejecting one’s immediate past in favor of a romanticized vision of African heritage.

It’s also worth noting how Walker employs the character of Mama, the narrator, to bridge the gap between Maggie’s silent submission and Dee’s vocal assertions. Mama, while initially in awe of Dee’s urban confidence, ultimately recognizes the depth of Maggie’s connection to her roots. The story’s resolution, where Mama sides with Maggie, highlights Walker’s message about the value of understanding and living one’s heritage rather than merely showcasing it.

“Everyday Use” serves as a timeless reminder of the importance of recognizing the depth and breadth of one’s cultural roots. Alice Walker masterfully crafts a narrative where quilts, simple household items, become profound symbols of heritage, identity, and familial bonds. Through the contrasting perspectives of Dee and Maggie, readers are urged to reflect on their own understanding of heritage and consider whether it’s a banner they wave or a tapestry they’re intrinsically woven into.

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Interpreting Heritage in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker. (2023, Dec 04). Retrieved from