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

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In "Everyday Use," Alice Walker explores the theme of cultural identity through depicting a conflict between two sisters, Dee and Maggie, over a family quilt.

When the story begins, Dee returns home to visit her mother, Mama, and sister, Maggie. Dee has been away at college and has...

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In "Everyday Use," Alice Walker explores the theme of cultural identity through depicting a conflict between two sisters, Dee and Maggie, over a family quilt.

When the story begins, Dee returns home to visit her mother, Mama, and sister, Maggie. Dee has been away at college and has brought her boyfriend, Hakim-a-Barber. She now wants to go by the name Wangero. As part of her education, Dee has begun to embrace her African cultural roots. She explains that she no longer wants to go by Dee because the name probably traces back to a name given to a maternal relative (a slave) by her master (a white man): "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me." Dee's clothing is also different—very colorful and accessorized with many bangle bracelets.

Mama and Maggie live a very simple life in their town, so Dee's appearance and bold voice shock them; clearly, she has changed significantly since they last saw her. It turns out that Dee has come home mostly to claim a quilt made by her grandmother. Her perspective is that she could best honor the artistry of the quilt by displaying it on a wall as art. Mama objects because she is more practical and also because she is planning to give the quilts to Maggie as a wedding gift. Maggie is clearly the daughter closer to her mother, and her isolation at home after she was seriously burned in a house fire has made her timid and passive.

Dee claims Maggie will not revere the quilts properly and that she will "put them to everyday use!" She even calls her sister "backwards" for this anticipated outcome. Clearly, Dee feels that her education has given her a greater sense of enlightenment that makes her superior to her family. Ultimately, Mama insists and Maggie gets to keep the quilts.

The conflict shows different approaches to cultural identity because of the way each sister intends to incorporate the quilt into her life. Maggie (and Mama) see the art form of quilting as practical, while Dee seeks to lift it up as part of her mission to legitimize African cultural heritage.

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Alice Walker published "Everyday Use" in 1973, in the early years of the Afrocentrism movement in America. This social movement examined the European cultural dominance over nonwhites and led to a renewed interest in and embrace of traditional African culture as a form of self-determination.

Dee's decision to take the name Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, she explains to her mother, is because she "couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me." The shedding of European names in favor of African or African-sounding names became popular during the civil rights and black power periods in America that occurred around the time Walker published the story.

Dee/Wangero is actively pursuing her own cultural identity as a modern African American woman, and part of the process for her involves ridding herself of her birth name. Dee/Wangero's mother likes the colorful dress and jewelry she wears, and she offers to go along with her daughter's new name. When she denies Wangero the quilts that she has already promised to Maggie, it is only because the promise has been made. The mother is not rejecting Dee/Wangero's new identity or different way of valuing the quilts; she is simply intervening on behalf of Maggie, who does not stand up for herself.

Ultimately it is Dee/Wangero who steps over the line and demonstrates her superficiality; she tells her mother that she (her mother) doesn't understand "her heritage" and that the way that she and Maggie choose to live doesn't reflect "a new day" for African-Americans. It seems that Walker is pointing out that Dee/Wangero's embrace of both cultures is actually false because instead of valuing both cultures, she now deems the one from which she comes as inferior. Dee/Wangero fails to fully understand the complexity of her own heritage.

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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.
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