Everyday Use of Heritage in a Growing World
Heritage is an essential tenet to human life. It is the faucet that allows people to connect and relate. In order for humans to continue to relate and evolve heritage needs to evolve as well. “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker is the story of two sisters, one educated traveler and one simple homebody. Through a simple conflict, so much is revealed about how the two sisters live their lives and what is of value to them. This story, although short, carries a big message about heritage in a growing world. Heritage at its best cannot be standing still or merely something of the past, but rather it must constantly transform and develop as time unfolds.
This story, narrated by their mother, recounts an awkward reunion of two sisters, Maggie and Dee. Maggie has always been a simpler girl who preferred to stay at home with their mother, Mama, in Augusta, Georgia. Dee, however, was sent to school, traveled the world, and gained success. Dee’s arrival is premediated by an air of uneasiness as neither Maggie nor Mama know what strange customs Dee may have picked up. As the time draws near a car approaches and Dee emerges with a foreign boyfriend. Maggie is awkward and cold to the new guest, and Mama is weary. Dee announces that she has changed her name to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” because she does not want to be named after the people who oppressed the African Americans so she gave herself a traditional African name to honor her roots (for arguments sake she will still be referred to as Dee). Dee’s arrival is met with even more uneasiness as she treats Maggie like a simpleton. She then asks Mama to take home family artifacts that are still used by the women in their everyday lives such as an old butter churn.
As Dee continues to claim rights to these old household items, feeling that she can properly appreciate them, she comes across some particular family belongings that lead the story to its conflict about the meaning and present day value of heritage. Dee goes through Mama’s trunk and emerges with quilts woven with the clothes of their family’s ancestors including their Grandma Dee’s dresses and their great grandfathers civil war uniform. Dee says that she will take the quilts out of their hands so that she can proudly hang and display them at her home. This does not go over well as these quilts were already promised to Maggie. Dee rebuffs this by stating that Maggie will use them as if they are just a common, unsentimental item and will wear out such precious heirlooms. The story concludes with Dee belittling both Mama and Maggie saying they don’t understand their own heritage and that Maggie needs to separate herself from the family farm and make something of her life as she drives off (Walker 1531-1537).
“Everyday Use” brings up many points that can be applied to society as a whole. The story contains many lessons to be learned in heritage, tradition, and roots. Dee has an opposing opinion to Mama and Maggie. Dee sees heritage as something that is to be displayed and honored, but should be left in the past. Her mother and Maggie see no harm in continuing to live life the way their ancestors always have. They think that by doing this one’s heritage is being honored and properly maintained. In order to truly appreciate heritage it is important that it is continued as a way of life, however, this does not mean that it cannot change and people must be cemented in the past.
It is very clear that Dee has moved on from the simple way of life of her mother and sister, and in doing so she has alienated herself from her family as well as her roots. She, however, doesn’t seem to notice as she still wants to display still-functional artifacts of her people around her own house. This is evidenced in the part of the story where Dee sees the butter churn not for a churn, but for an object of decoration: “’I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table,’ she said, sliding a plate over the churn, ‘and I’ll think of something artistic to do with the dasher.’” (Walker 1535) As if this wasn’t enough of a denounced of her practical heritage, she again proves this point during the quilt tantrum between her and her mother:
“She can always make some more,” I said. “Maggie knows how to quilt.” Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. “You will just not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!” “Well,” I said, stumped. “What would you do with them?” “Hang them,” she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts (Walker 1536).
It is very obvious that Dee has detached herself from her past and she has embraced a more global outlook on life. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing as people need to be continually evolving to survive. Joe Sarinowski points out the merit behind Dee’s side and compliments her on her innovation of thought. Even though Dee’s opposing view to her sister and mother make her seem like she doesn’t understand where they are coming from, and why their way of life is so valuable to them, she values her heritage and embodies a new modern view. She promotes a new way for African Americans to cope with their differences from the rest of America and the issues that they face and offers a way to use their heritage in a proud, public way that Mama and Maggie do not (275).
The other extreme of heritage preservation seen in the story is Maggie and Mamas’ view, that the consistent utilization and practice of ones heritage as it always has been will keep it in tact the best. Although the characters are living in the 20th Century, Maggie and Mama seem to be stuck in the Civil War era. Dee points out the error of their ways at the end of the story when she tells her sister, “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.” (Walker, 1536) This kind of cultural preservation is too extreme and doesn’t allow for people to innovate beyond the point they are stuck.
However, just as Dee’s extreme view of heritage had some merit, so does Maggie and Mama’s. They are truly utilizing their past to their advantage. The other side of the quilt incident, in fact, points out the benefits behind their view with Mama’s pleasure in Maggie’s intended use of the quilts when Mama says “’I reckon she would,’ I said. ‘God knows I been saving ‘em for long enough with nobody using ‘em. I hope she will!” (Walker 1536).
Within these opposing ideas of heritage one can try to decide which is right, but the answer is more complex. It very easily can be said that parts of both beliefs combined create the truth of heritage. Culture can best be preserved by a blend of the extremes we see in “Everyday Use”. In order to preserve heritage at its best Dee’s element of modernization needs to meet Maggie’s element of utilization.
Dee’s belief of cultural heritage is centered on adjusting to a modern world and Maggie’s belief is focused on preserving the way she lives and not changing a thing. The middle ground, where culture can be appreciated for what happened and continued as a way of life but adapted to fit a changing, modern world. An author who also argues this belief is Federico Lenzerini:
In consideration of the fact that culture is a living and changeable entity, one given cultural manifestation can represent a culture through the passing of time only if such manifestation is capable of continuously modifying itself in parallel to the transformations characterizing the cultural whole of which it is a part (108).
An integral part to the continuation of humanity is adaptability. If culture cannot adapt, then neither can people.
An important symbol in the story that further emphasizes this point is the butter churn. Dee views the butter churn as an old relic that could be used as an art piece. Whereas Mama still sees the butter churn for its use for making butter, making note of the hand marks that have been engraved in the handle after years of utilization. Durham writes, “Symbolic products also possess a certain concreteness. But if they are not used, the work that brought them into being is in a sense dead” (Durham 2013) in order to explain that the use of cultural products is essential to the continuation of heritage. If the butter churn is a symbol then it is not just a relic that symbolizes a past people; it is an object that is still used by Mama and by using the butter churn they are, in a sense, preserving a piece of their culture.
“Everyday Use” is the story of two sisters that have grown apart physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Dee has traveled the world and has moved on from the way she was raised while Maggie stayed home and continued the exact way of life that she was raised in., very much so because her mother has never moved away from the traditional life of her ancestors. The two ways of life seen in this story both embody the extremes in which one can embrace their heritage. People do not have to live every day in and out repeating traditions of the past to maintain their roots, but there is more to living within ones heritage than appreciating relics of the past. Heritage must be more than just a meaningful decoration, for that decoration would just be a symbol of those who actually experienced their heritage during life. Dee’s side of total globalization that leaves heritage in the past to modernize and expand must meet Maggie and Mama’s side of heritage utility and repetition. In this middle ground the best way to maintain, appreciate, and live ones true heritage can be found.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Vol. 2. New York: New York, 2013. 1531-1537. Print.
Eunice Ribeiro, Durham. “Reflections On Culture, Heritage And Preservation.” Vibrant: 9oVirtual Brazilian Anthropology 1 (2013): 77. SciELO. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Lenzerini, Federico. “Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Living Culture Of Peoples.” European Journal Of International Law 22.1 (2011): 101-120. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Sarnowski, Joe. “Destroying To Save: Idealism And Pragmatism In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use..” Papers On Language & Literature 48.3 (2012): 269-286. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.