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Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”

Image borrowed from http://www.csd509j.net/staff/carricp/

Alice Walker is one of my favorite contemporary authors. I would love to emulate her writings.

The Quilt Maker

By

Sambath Meas

In “Everyday Use,” a short story written from the perspective of a mother about her two radically opposite daughters, Dee and Maggie, Alice Walker conveys the significance of quilts, class differences, and her own self-depiction or self-projection in the characters of Mama, Dee/Wangero, and Maggie. The major conflict in this story is the quarrel, between the aggressive Dee and the submissive Maggie, over the ownership of the family’s “priceless” quilts. While the two daughters value them differently, Mama has the final word. She decides to snatch the quilts from Dee and give them to Maggie not because she sides with her, but because it is the right thing to do. Her action represents the middle path between the two extremes of aggressiveness and passiveness. Here, Mama is not only giving herself a voice, but she is also giving Maggie a voice. This middle path represents Walker’s own thought about the right path to take to combat hatred, prejudice, and violence, during the complex time of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Tragically, “Despite the [Civil Rights] Movement, in 1970 the United States continued to be racially divided and violent against black people” (Hendrickson 112).

The quilt is a recurring theme and metaphor in Alice Walker’s writings. She references it in her poems, short stories, essays, and novels. It has become a symbol of class, creativity, and legacy. As the daughter of sharecroppers in the South, she can identify with the poor and the uneducated class and knows the value of handmade goods. According to her, quilting signifies one of the many creative attributes of her hard-working mother. In “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Walker recalls how her mother worked tirelessly “along side” her father and selflessly took great care of her and her seven siblings. “She made all the clothes we wore, even my brothers’ overalls. She made all the towels and sheets we used. She spent the summers canning vegetables and fruits. She spent the winter evenings making quilts enough to cover all our beds” (238). Walker continues:

And yet, it is to my mother—and all our mothers who were not famous—that I went in search of the secret of what has fed that muzzled and often mutilated, but vibrant, creative spirit that black woman has inherited, and that pops out in wild and unlikely places to this day.

For example: in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., there hangs a quilt unlike any other in the world. In fanciful, inspired, and yet simple and identifiable figures, it portrays the story of the Crucifixion. It is considered rare, beyond price. Though it follows no known pattern of quilt-making, and though it is made of bits and pieces of worthless rags, it is obviously the work of a person of powerful imagination and deep spirit feeling. Below this quilt I saw a note that says it was made by “an anonymous Black woman in Alabama, a hundred years ago.”

If we could locate this “anonymous black woman from Alabama, she would turn out to be one of our grandmothers—an artist who left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use.” (Walker 238, 239)

A quilt is “priceless” not only because it showcases a poor and uneducated woman’s “creative spirit”; it is also a legacy that connects African-American women with their matrilineal ancestors. The art of quilting has been passed down to Walker from her mother. Though she admits, “I’m really more of a piecer, actually, than I am a quilter,” she has shown her own “powerful imagination and deep spirit feeling” through literature (Freeman 70). She has contributed tremendously to African-American studies and the Civil Rights Movement. History sees her as both a “piecer” and a “quilter” when it comes to writing and working as an activist. David Cowart says it best when he writes, “Self-chastened, Walker presents her own art—the piecing of linguistic and literary intertexts—as quilt-making with words, an art as imbued with the African American past as the literal quilt-making of the grandmother for whom Wangero was originally named” (Cowart 172).

It is apparent that Walker pays homage to her mother and other African-American women through the character Mama in “Everyday Use.” Mama is a poor and uneducated black woman who lives somewhere in the South with her younger daughter Maggie. She may not have any education or accolades, but her legacy and creative spirit can be seen in her everyday living.

The readers are left to assume Mama’s husband is deceased. She only references him when talking about Dee/Wangero. “Everything delighted her. Even the fact that we still used the benches her daddy made for the table when we couldn’t afford to buy chairs” (Guerin 409). Like many black women, Mama is both a mother and a father to her children. With the assistance of the church, she was able to raise money to provide education for her older daughter Dee. She has done her best to provide for both of her children, even if she has to perform both feminine and masculine chores. Mama does not pity herself. She actually sounds proud when she describes herself:

In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather. I can work outside all day, breaking ice to get water for washing; I can eat pork liver cooked over the open fire minutes after it comes steaming from the hog. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. (Guerin 406)

Her posterity may not remember these amazing things about her, but her memories will be forever stitched on the quilts, which her mother and big sister had left their own marks on.

They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Star Pattern. The other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Erza’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War. (Guerin 410)

Mama has given the hand-stitched quilts to Maggie to carry on this legacy. She will not only put them to “Everyday Use,” but she will also continue the legacy by adding to the quilts and by passing on this creativity to her own daughters. On the contrary, Dee/Wangero will only hang them on the wall for aesthetic purposes. Though Wangero sees this as a way of connecting, honoring, and remembering her ancestors, this is not how Walker, through the characters of Mama and Maggie, values quilts. In contrast, Dee/Wangero is pushing herself away, making the objects impersonal, using them only for hanging and collecting dust.

Here, Walker is exploring another conflict between the poor, uneducated mother and the educated, middle-class daughter. Instead of appreciating her mother’s sacrifices in giving her a better life, Dee/Wangero turns her back on her family and looks down on the very hands that feed her. She turns her back on her immediate ancestors by changing her name to “Wangero” and adapting herself to African custom and culture, which she does not know anything about. The message here is that she does not have to look to Africa to affirm her identity, when she could find it in her own given name and family. In actuality, she distances herself from her ancestors, in turning her back on her mother and Maggie. Mama sees this and does not appreciate it. Though Mama projects Maggie’s feelings of “envy” and “awe” of her sister, it appears that Mama herself possesses similar sentiments. Actually, Mama resents Dee/Wangero treating her, Maggie, and the house like objects and subjects of her research, in her distorted attempt to embrace her humble roots.

Dee’s new interest in her roots stems from her new awareness that aspects of her history can be used as accessories of style and as elements of interior decoration to elevate her in other people’s eyes and to solidify her middle-class status; she can appear more intelligent, more compassionate, more thoughtful, more in touch with her heritage. She has brought Hakim to visit her family in order to use Mama and Maggie and the house she hates and the quilts she didn’t want earlier to show him her humble roots. (Bloom 160)

When she arrives at the house, “Out she peeks next with a Polaroid. She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house. Then she puts the Polaroid in the back seat of the car, and comes up and kisses me on the forehead” (Guerin 408). Just as with the quilts, she is treating her family like objects. She is cold, condescending, and distanced from them.

However, Mama does recognize the value of education. She sees education as empowerment. In contrast to her shy and secluded daughter Maggie, Mama sees that education gives Dee/Wangero confidence and courage. It makes her aggressive. She speaks her mind without hesitation and is not afraid of looking people in the eyes when talking to them. This is an admirable quality. Mama cannot imagine herself having such a “quick tongue” and looking at someone in the eye, especially a white man. “Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can imagine me looking a stranger white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them” (Guerin 406). Mama is strong and courageous when it comes to her household chores and other physical labor, but she realizes her lack of education makes her and Maggie passive with people outside her realm, specifically white people. She admits, “I had never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now” (Guerin 407). Such passive acceptance is what makes a poor person remain poor and miserable. “Dee inspires in Mama a type of awe and fear more suitable to the advent of a goddess than the love one might expect a mother to feel for a returning daughter” (Farrel 180). Hence, Mama does have admiration for Dee/Wangero with her education; however, this, alone, cannot replace a mother¬–daughter bond.

Education and class can be divisive, but the moral lesson of “Everyday Use” is: the poor and uneducated have a voice, too. At the end, Mama’s voice speaks the loudest. Just like Walker’s empathy towards the ordinary Southern black women who are “not famous,” Mama’s compassion for Maggie’s purity and good-heartedness prompts her to snatch the quilts from Dee/Wangero and put them on Maggie’s lap—a statement that an educated person is not the only one with entitlement. Maggie is entitled to the quilts just as much as her sister, because she has a “deepseated understanding of heritage. Most readers agree that when Mama takes the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie, she confirms her younger daughter’s self-worth: metaphorically, she gives Maggie her voice” (Tuten 125).

Alice Walker wrote “Everyday Use” in 1973. This was a complex time for the Civil Rights Movement, because it was competing with the many factions of Black Power Movements. These other factions, the gun-toting Black Panthers and the nationalist men who were influenced by the ideology of the Nation of Islam, were seen as divisive. They undermined the Civil Rights Movement of nonviolent struggles for racial justice and equality. Unfortunately, many blacks grew impatient and gave up on the nonviolent approach. Many activists, including Walker herself, questioned the right path to take to combat the continued inequality, racism, and violence against African-Americans. Just as in her other essays, short stories, and novels, Walker here uses “her experience in the Movement and the experience of others of her generation to deal with the social, political and philosophical issues raised by the Movement, issues that continue to engage us today” (Hendrickson 111).

In “Everyday Use,” Walker creates two extreme characters—one who is aggressive and one who is passive—to demonstrate an ideological clash and a moral lesson. After weighing all options, at the end, she chose the middle path—the practice of nonviolence, which was influenced by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and which characterized the Civil Rights Movement. On the one hand, violence would only beget violence; on the other, passivity would only lead to a life of toil. One must not be extreme in one or the other of these responses. As if having an epiphany, Mama speaks up by giving the quilts to the more deserving daughter and in turns gives her a voice. The middle path is the way, and Mama represents this middle path.

Lastly, Walker projects herself into all three characters of “Everyday Use”: Mama, Dee, and Maggie. Mama is a poor and uneducated black woman who lives in the South. Her legacy is quilting. Walker was poor and had lived in the South. She also practices the art of quilting, in a literary sense as well. Mama and Alice Walker are both quilters, and they are both creators.

Walker depicts herself also in Dee, the woman who breaks away from ignorance and poverty. Unfortunately, her newfound education puts a strain on her relationship with her family, just like what happened between Walker and her father.

Walker’s relationship with her father became strained as she grew into adolescence and showed a proclivity for intellectual pursuits. Although her father was an intelligent man, his educational opportunities had been limited, and he feared that education would place barriers between him and his children. When Walker left her home for Spelman College in Atlanta, her relationship with her father effectively ended, but over time she has re-evaluated the relationship and has resolved many of her conflicted emotions toward this parent. (Johnson 1)

“Everyday Use” shows that no matter how educated you are, you should embrace your humble beginning by actively participating in the community and in your own family’s creativity. Education should not be a cause of divisiveness. It should enlighten a person to understand others better.

Walker also identifies with Maggie, who is ashamed of her “burn scar down her arms and legs.” She can identify with this physical scar. As a young girl one of her brothers accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. The scar left her feeling “ugly” and “ashamed.” It destroyed her self-confidence. She turned into a completely different person then when she was a little girl. She stopped looking up, just like the character of Maggie. She always felt self-conscious about her scar.

These conflicts over interpretation of ancestry and heritage, class differences, and ownership of the quilts are central to identity. It is ironic that Mama sounds more educated and well-rounded while Dee, the learned and sophisticated daughter, appears clueless. It is as if, in her attempt to value the poor, unknown African-American women, Walker is making Mama more articulate and profoundly knowledgeable than the educated daughter.

WORKS CITED

Bloom, Harold. Alice Walker. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2007. Print.

Cowart, David. “Heritage and deracination in Walker’s `Everyday Use.'” Studies in Short Fiction 33.2 (1996): 171. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.

Farrell, Susan. “Fight vs. Flight: A Re-evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”.” Studies in Short Fiction 35.2 (1998): 179. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.

Freeman, Roland L. “Quilting a Legacy.” New Crisis (15591603) 106.4 (1999): 70. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.

Guerin, Wilfred L. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Hendrickson, Roberta M. Remembering the Dream: Alice Walker, Meridian and the Civil Rights Movement. MELUS , Vol. 24, No. 3, Varieties of Ethnic Criticism (Autumn, 1999), pp. 111-128
Published by: The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS)
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/468042

Johnson, Yvonne, “Alice Walker”. The Literary Encyclopedia. First Published 29 February 2004
[http://litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=4945,accessed 30 October 2011.]

Tuten, Nancy. “Alice Walker’s Everyday Use.” Explicator 51.2 (1993): 125. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 22 Oct. 2011.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. Orlando: Harcourt, 2003. Print.

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