Lost Heritage in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

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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.

Works Cited

Walker, Alice. 'Everyday Use.' Literature: Reading, Reacting,

Writing. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. Fort

Worth: Harcourt, 1994. 288-295.