Lost Heritage in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"
By contrasting the family characters in "Everyday Use,"
Walker illustrates the mistake by some of placing the
significance of heritage solely in material objects. Walker
presents Mama and Maggie, the younger daughter, as an example
that heritage in both knowledge and form passes from one
generation to another through a learning and experience
connection. However, by a broken connection, Dee, the older
daughter, represents a misconception of heritage as material.
During Dee's visit to Mama and Maggie, the contrast of the
characters becomes a conflict because Dee misplaces the
significance of heritage in her desire for racial heritage.
Mama and Maggie symbolize the connection between generations
and the heritage that passed between them. Mama and Maggie
continue to live together in their humble home. Mama is a robust
woman who does the needed upkeep of the land,
I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working
hands. In the winter, I wear overalls during the day.
I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. I
can work outside all day, One winter I knocked a bull
calf straight in the brain with a sledge hammer and
had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. (Walker
And Maggie is the daughter, "homely and ashamed of the burn scars
down her arms and legs," (Walker 288) who helps Mama by making
"the yard so clean and wavy" (Walker 288) and washes dishes "in
the kitchen over the dishpan" (Walker 293). Neither Mama nor
Maggie are 'modernly' educated persons; "I [Mama] never had an
education myself. Sometimes Maggie reads to me. She stumbles
along good-naturedly She knows she is not bright" (Walker 290).
However, by helping Mama, Maggie uses the hand-made items in her
life, experiences the life of her ancestors, and learns the
history of both, exemplified by Maggie's knowledge of the hand-
made items and the people who made them--a knowledge which Dee
does not possess.
Contrasting with Mama and Maggie, Dee seeks her heritage
without understanding the heritage itself. Unlike Mama who is
rough and man-like, and Maggie who is shy and scared, Dee is
confident, where "Hesitation is no part of her nature," (Walker
289) and beautiful:
" first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is
Dee. Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God had
shaped them Dee next. A dress down to the ground
Earrings gold, too (Walker 291)
Also, Dee has a 'modern' education, having been sent "to a school
in Augusta" (Walker 290). Dee attempts to connect with her racial
heritage by taking
"picture after picture of me sitting there in front of
the house with Maggie She never takes a shot without
making sure the house is included" (Walker 291).
Dee takes an another name without understanding her original
name; neither does Dee try to learn. Also, Dee takes some of the
hand-made items of her mother's such as the churn top which she
will use "as a centerpiece for the alcove table" (Walker 293).
Dee associates the items with her heritage now, but thought
nothing of them in her youth as when the first house burnt down.
Dee's quest of her heritage is external, wishing to have these
various items in order to display them in her home. Dee wants the
items because she perceives each to have value, as shown in the
dialog between Dee and Mama about the quilts after dinner.
Dee's valuing of the quilt conflicts with Mama's perception
of the quilts. Dee considers the quilt priceless because the
quilt is hand-stitched, not machined, by saying, "There are all
pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this
stitching by hand. Imagine!" (Walker 294). Dee plans to display
the quilts or "Hang them," (Walker 294) unlike Maggie who may
"put them to everyday use" (Walker 294). However, Mama "promised
to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries " (Walker
294). Mama knows there exists a connection of heritage in Maggie;
Mama knows that "It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught
[Maggie] how to quilt" (Walker 294). Because of Maggie's
connection, Mama takes the quilts from Dee who "held the quilts
securely in her arms, stroking them clutching them closely to
her bosom" (Walker 294) like sacred idols, and then gives them to
After Mama gives Maggie the quilts, Dee says, "You just
don't understand Your heritage" (Walker 295). Dee believes
heritage to be the quilt on the wall or the churn in the alcove.
Dee knows the items are hand-made but not the knowledge and
history behind the items. Yet, Mama does know the knowledge and
history and knows that Maggie does too. Ironically, Dee
criticizes Mama for not understanding heritage when, in fact, Dee
fails to really understand heritage. Dee mistakenly places
heritage wholly in what she owns, not what she knows.
Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." Literature: Reading, Reacting,
Writing. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Fort
Worth: Harcourt, 1994. 288-295.