How does Alice Walker explore cultural identity in her short story "Everyday Use"?

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lizedwards eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" examines a changing time in African-American history. Set in the 1960s, the story contrasts rural, tradition-based African-American heritage with the movement to reinvent African-American identity with a basis in African tribal culture.

The main question in the story considers what should be done with the African-American heritage of slavery and oppression: Should it be distanced from us, or embraced and built upon? 

The climax of "Everyday Use" revolves around the question of which daughter should receive the family's heirloom hand-sewn quilts. Maggie has been promised them as a wedding present, but Dee wants them to display. The two daughters represent two ways to proceed into the future as a black woman in the sixties. By contrasting the two daughters, Walker illustrates the choice black women faced: embrace the history of black oppression and keep it as part of one's everyday life, or move forward and distance oneself from it. Maggie's character represents the choice to keep the past close: she will use the quilts as they were intended to be used. Dee represents the alternative option: keep the quilts as a decoration rather than a useful piece of the household, thus separating the present from the past.

African-American cultural identity in the 1960s was in flux. Segments of the African-American community began to shift how they chose to identify culturally. Much of the flux of the sixties revolved around the choice to embrace the past or distance it. Walker encapsulates this pivotal moment by telling a story about two daughters and some quilts. Walker concludes her narrative with the mother deciding to give Maggie the quilts. By choosing to end the story this way, Walker advances her belief that the better path for African-American women is to keep the past and traditions close, rather than hold them at a distance.