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In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use,” the daughter named Dee (Wangero) seems to be far more highly educated than her sister Maggie. She is also better-educated than her mother. It is not surprising, then, that Dee often treats her mother and sister as if they lack the knowledge and insight that Dee herself possesses.
Ironically, however, it was Dee who helped contribute to the formal learning of both her mother and sister. At one point early in the story, for instance, the mother says of Dee,
we raised money, the church and me, to send her to Augusta to school. She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.
This passage seems ironic in many different ways. First, it seems ironic that although the church helps Dee to become educated, she doesn’t seem to treat her mother and sister with the kind of respect and love that Christians prize. Second, instead of sharing her knowledge with her mother and sister in ways that will make them love to learn, she bullies them with whatever knowledge she gains. Third, instead of using learning to help promote the self-confidence and self-respect of her mother and sister, she teaches in ways that produce just the opposite effects. Fourth, the lessons she teaches seem impractical and even brutal; they are alienating rather than affirming. Finally, for Dee, teaching seems to be a way of empowering herself rather than empowering those she teaches. One last irony: the lessons her mother learns from this experience are not the lessons Dee hopes to teach (i.e., subservience to Dee). In fact, the lessons the mother learns from Dee are just the opposite: disrespect for the daughter who has disrespected her mother and sister.
Speaking of her own history, the mother reports that
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school was closed down. Don't ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.
The very next sentence notes that Maggie would read to her mother, although in a stumbling way, so Maggie must have received some kind of education. The mother seems to welcome Maggie’s reading and, just as important, she welcomes the generous spirit in which the reading is done. In this matter as in so much else, Maggie is the opposite of Dee.
One of the great paradoxes of the story is that ultimately Dee, despite her education, seems less wise than either Maggie or her mother. She may have book learning, but she lacks common sense and common decency. She lacks the kind of concern for others that true education should help nourish. She may have read much and traveled widely, but her mental and moral universe is incredibly narrow and constricted. All she can think about is herself. Her mother and sister are in many ways far more intelligent than Dee will ever be.
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