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In “Everyday Use” the writer, Alice Walker, makes numerous references to the characters’ ethnic background. In this story the first-person narrator is the mother of two characters, Maggie and Dee. Dee is frustrated with her mother and sister for what she believes is their failure to move forward as African-Americans. The narrator, as an older woman, is from a different time and doesn’t look at things the same way.
At one point, talking about her attitude toward others, Mama says, “Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?”
Dee, the more socially conscious and independent sister, is described as “lighter than Maggie.” When she arrives home from college to spend a day with her family, she says she has changed her name, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” But Mama (the narrator) doesn’t see it that way, explaining to Dee that her name has been in the family for generations. Throughout her visit, Dee wants to take things from the house as keepsakes, things that the family actually uses in daily life. To her they are like museum pieces from a historical period that she isn’t part of. This shows how she views the life of her mother and sister—unreal, no longer legitimate on its own merit.
Walker also imbues her main character with a sense of the history of the African-American people in her area. Mama recalls an incident in the past when white people poisoned the cattle of some black farmers, “. . . the [black] men stayed up all night with rifles in their hands. I walked a mile and an half just to see the sight.” This recollection is important. It shows the difference between Mama’s world and Dee’s. While Dee is concerned with expressing her heritage in terms of names, hair, and trinkets, Mama has a true appreciation for the life and death struggle that brought the African-American community to this point.
Eventually, Mama makes the momentous decision to stand up to Dee and deny her the quilts she so desires. Maggie is to actually make use of the quilts when she marries, but Dee wants them as artifacts. The stories climax occurs as Mama takes the quilts away from Dee and gives them to Maggie.
Finally, at the end, Dee is leaving. She tells her mother that she (Mama) just doesn’t understand her own heritage. It’s an ironic twist, since Dee has shown throughout her visit that it is she who does not understand.
Ethnicity is an important factor in the “Half and Half” chapter of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. This chapter is told from the perspective of Rose Hsu Jordan, daughter of An-mei Hsu, an ethnic Chinese woman originally from mainland China but now living in the United States. Rose’s father, George Hsu, is also ethnic Chinese. Rose, however, has herself married a white American, Ted Jordan, despite the wishes of her own mother and also despite the wishes of Jordan’s parents. The story thus emphasizes the importance of ethnicity repeatedly.
Initially, before their marriage, Rose had found Ted attractive precisely because he was not Chinese and differed, both in manners and appearance, from most of the ethnic Chinese young men she knew. Rose’s mother, however, had cautioned her daughter against dating someone of a different ethnicity:
"He is American," warned my mother, as if I had been too blind to notice. A waigoren."
"I'm American too," I said. "And it's not as if I'm going to marry him or something."
This is an important passage, because it indicates Rose’s sense that even though she is the daughter of ethnic Chinese, she has grown up as a Chinese-American. However, her assumption that she is mostly an American is challenged later by Ted’s wealthy mother, who does not want Ted to marry at this point in her life, and who certainly does not want him to marry an Asian:
She assured me she had nothing whatsoever against minorities; she and her husband, who owned a chain of office-supply stores, personally knew many fine people who were Oriental, Spanish, and even black.
Later, after Rose and Ted do marry, Ted reveals himself to be domineering and manipulative, and as the chapter opens, Rose is contemplating a divorce. Her mother, however, partly in response to the values of her own Chinese culture, urges her daughter to try to save the marriage. Paradoxically, the same values that led the mother to be suspicious of Ted in the beginning now make her advise her daughter not to divorce him. Ironically, the same sense of being an “American” that had led Rose to date Ted at all now makes her much more willing than her mother to consider the possibility of divorce.
In this way and others, then, ethnicity plays an important role in the story.
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