Alice Walker’s Self Portrayal In “Everyday Use

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Alice Walker draws on her personal experiences growing up as a sharecropper?s daughter in Georgia to realistically relate the story, ?Everyday Use.? The story features two sisters, Maggie and Dee, who are very different from each other physically, intellectually, and emotionally and their mother, referred to as ?Mama.? One who is unaware of Walker?s past may believe that she equates herself with Dee?s character. In fact, Maggie more precisely exemplifies the author?s self image. Although one can find similarities between Dee?s life and Walker?s, the parallels between her life and Maggie?s are too abundant to ignore. Additionally, Walker?s poem, ?For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties,? describes a very ?Dee-esque? person. In her book, In Search Of Our Mothers? Gardens, Walker states regarding the poem that it ?is a pretty real poem. It really is about one of my sisters?(269). This statement supports the claim that Walker relies on her childhood memories as material for her writing.

The first reflection of Walker?s childhood is found in the yard and house in ?Everyday Use.? They are an accurate depiction of her childhood homestead. She begins the story with a description of the yard in which Maggie and Mama await Dee?s arrival. Mama informs the reader, ?It is not just a yard. It is an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit [ . . . ]? (Walker, Everyday 89). In a conversation with her mother about the cliché concerning greener grass, Walker alludes to having a sand yard as a child. She asserts, ?Grass on the other side of the fence might have good fertilizer, while grass on your side might have to grow, if it grows at all, in sand? (Walker, In Search 58-59). The yard in ?Everyday Use? is a sanctuary where, as Mama tells the reader, one can ?wait for the breezes that never come inside the house? (Walker, Everyday 89). Discussing her mother?s art of gardening, Walker praises her for creating that same feeling of refuge where, ?even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms? (Walker, In Search 241). The house in the story consists of three rooms and is located in a pasture. Similarly, Walker?s house contained four rooms and as she reveals in her book, In Search Of Our Mothers? Gardens, ?It shocks me to remember that when we lived here we lived, literally, in a pasture? (43). Obviously, the setting of ?Everyday Use? is derived directly from Walker?s childhood memories. Correspondingly, Walker bases the three women in the story, Mama, Dee, and Maggie Johnson, on her mother, her sister, and herself respectively. Mama proclaims that she is ?a large, big-boned woman with rough man-working hands? (Walker Everyday 90). Walker describes her mother, in In Search Of Our Mothers? Gardens, as being ?large? and ?soft? and states, ?she labored beside ? not behind ? my father in the fields? (238). The older sister, Dee, in the story is based on Walker?s sister. Dee is beautiful, intelligent, and curvaceous. She has left home to attend college, where she, as Cowart assesses in his essay, ?immersed herself in the liberating culture she would first urge on her bewildered mother and sister, then denounce as oppressive? (172). Dee encounters new religions, people, attitudes, and ideals. She chooses to embrace these new values and in doing so denies her true heritage. She goes to the extreme when she renounces her given name, a name that Mama can trace back, through the family, to before the Civil War, in exchange for the African name, ?Wangero.? Mama explains that Dee wears a dress of ?yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun? and has braids in her hair ?that rope about like small lizards disappearing behind her ears? (Walker, Everyday 91). Dee is the epitome of Walker?s sister as described in her poem, ?For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties.? Critics, such as Cowart, claim, ??Everyday Use? is the prose version of that poem? (176). In the poem, Walker chronicles the life of her sister, who: ?Knew all the written things that made / Us laugh, [ . . . ] Who walked among the flowers [ . . .] And looked as bright. / Who made dresses, braided / Hair. [ . . .] WHO OFF INTO THE UNIVERSITY / Went exploring [ . . .] WHO FOUND ANOTHER WORLD / Another life / With gentlefolk / Far less trusting / And moved and moved and changed / Her name [ . . . ] WHO SAW US SILENT / Cursed with fear [ . . . ] ? (Walker, Revolutionary 16-19). Walker wrote this poem after the painful realization that her sister was ?ashamed? of her family. Just as Mama and Dee are representations of Walker?s mother and sister, Maggie is a manifestation of the author?s problematical, young life. Maggie is quiet, shy, and homely. She hides in corners and as Mama explicates, walks ?chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground? (Walker, Everyday 90). Mama considers her unintelligent, however; Tuten disagrees and verbalizes her opinion by stating, ?The subsequent action of the story, however, in no way supports Mama?s reading of her younger daughter? (127). Maggie actually is rather quick witted and proves this fact by her remarks throughout the story. When Mama speaks of Dee?s statement that she will come to visit them wherever they live, ?but she will never bring her friends,? Maggie?s hilarious response is, ?Mama, when did Dee ever have any friends?? (Walker, Everyday 91). She also provides humor in the story when she reveals her aversion to her sister?s boyfriend, hair, and name change with a single throaty syllable, ?Uhnnnh? (Walker, Everyday 91). When Maggie correctly identifies the whittler of the dash, ?Aunt Dee?s first husband whittled the dash, [ . . .] His name was Henry, but they called him stash.? Dee comments that, ?Maggie?s brain is like an elephant?s? (Walker, Everyday 93). Dee?s comment about Maggie?s brain leads the reader to believe that Dee, somewhere deep down, understands that Maggie is actually smart. When Dee announces that she wants the quilts, Maggie says, after making her true opinion known by first dropping something in the kitchen and then slamming the kitchen door, ?She can have them, Mama [ . . . ] I can ?member Grandma Dee without the quilts? (Walker, Everyday 94). Maggie has learned how to quilt and can therefore make new quilts to carry on their heritage. At the beginning of the story, Maggie believes that she is unworthy of anything. However, in the end Mama gives her not only the gift of the quilts, but also the gift of self-worth. Tuten states about Mama, ?she confirms her younger daughter?s self-worth: metaphorically, she gives Maggie her voice. [ . . . ] The text underscores such a reading by stating that immediately after the incident Maggie sits with her ?mouth open?? (125). She finally has the confidence to speak. David Cowart agrees that Maggie is an autobiographical character. He states, ?That Walker would represent herself in the backward, disfigured Maggie strains credulity only if one forgets that the author was herself a disfigured child? (176). Like Maggie, Walker was scarred in childhood by a sibling. Her brother shot her in the eye with a BB gun when she was eight years old. Walker clarifies, ?Where the BB pellet struck there is a glob of whitish scar tissue, a hideous cataract on my eye.? Before the accident, she was ?something of a whiz? in school, and self proclaimed, ?the prettiest.? She did not raise her head around others and she tried to hide in her room when relatives came to visit. Walker considered herself very homely and her schoolwork suffered immensely (Walker, In Search 385-389). She too learned to quilt and makes reference to that ability in her works often. Nevertheless, like Maggie, Walker was given the gift of self worth, not from her mother, but from her daughter. Walker relates this story in her book, In Search Of Our Mothers? Gardens. When Walker was twenty-seven, her daughter was three. She had been concerned with what her child would say when she noticed the deformity in her mother?s eye. Walker?s daughter, Rebecca, watched a television show called, ?Big Blue Marble.? ?It begins with a picture of the earth as it appears from the moon. It is bluish, a little battered-looking, but full of light, with whitish clouds swirling around it [ . . . ] One day when I am putting Rebecca down for her nap, she suddenly focuses on my eye [ . . . ] She studies my face intently [ . . . ] She even holds my face maternally between her dimpled little hands. Then, [ . . . ] she says, as if it may just possibly have slipped my attention: ?Mommy, there?s a world in your eye??(392-393). Just as Mama gave Maggie the self-assurance, which she needed to survive, Rebecca gave her mother, Alice Walker, the gift of self-acceptance, for which she desperately longed. Because Walker has written so candidly of her life, the reader is effortlessly able to perceive the parallels of Maggie?s existence and that of Walker?s. One also understands that her sister, not Walker, is the model for Dee, and that Mama is undeniably based on her mother. The setting in the story is straight from the author?s memories, even down to the pasture in which the house is set. Just as Maggie keeps the art of quilting alive and lives her heritage everyday, Walker records the stories of her life, often in her mother?s manner of speaking, and puts her heritage to ?Everyday Use.?