Through centuries of American history and the perspectives of different generations, how are education and family heritage and oppression  portrayed in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker is a story of contrasts.  These differences dominate the story thematically.  The story takes place in  the early 1970’s in the rural south. The narrator is Mrs. Johnson, the mother of Dee and Maggie.

The author never explains the lack of a father figure in the Johnson family; however, with no education and two daughters to raise, Mama struggles to be a single parent.  Serving as the first person narrator of the story, Mama has worked hard to provide for her family. The repression in the story stems from these motifs: education versus no education and African legacy versus family legacy.

Oppression infiltrates the Johnson family. Mama, a single parent with no skills, has worked hard. Dee, the oldest daughter, represents the new black generation. This group is better educated, self-superior, and  superficial in understanding the harsh past of their ancestors. Dee’s education was paid by Mama’s church which prepared her for the work world. Now she longs for her African heritage rather than her family legacy. 

Mama’s education was also normal for her generation. In 1927, she had to stop her education in the second grade because her school closed. The white school did not close, but Mama could not attend it. She cannot read nor write.  Dee sometimes read to her mother and sister usually to show her superiority.

When Dee arrives for her visit, she tells her mother that “Dee” is dead. Even though Dee is a family name given by her grandmother, she no longer wants anything that is related to slavery . This is ironic since Dee does want the quilt that this same grandmother made with her own hands.  

When Dee arrives after several years away, she is dressed in beautiful African-flavored clothes and jewelry. She has renamed herself Wangero.  Dee uses Arabic-Islam words and greetings indicative of the black power movement of the time.  She is trying to attach herself to her African heritage ignoring her own heritage which comes from her mother and her ancestors.  All of this is quite representative of the movements toward black power in the 1970's.

The inexplicable problem with this attachment to the African heritage and the Islamic religion is that it ignores what is readily available to these formally educated blacks. Dee scorns her legacy that is standing in front of her: her mother's knowledge of the family’s ancestry. 

What is even more peculiar is Dee’s determination to rob her family of the only valuable items that her mother has.  In fact, the reason that Dee has come home to visit is to acquire souvenirs to use as decorations in her house. Her mother refuses to give Dee the quilts; consequently, Dee disparages her sister.

“You just don’t understand,” she said.

“What don’t I understand?” I wanted to know.

“Your heritage,” she said…to Maggie. "You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie.  It’s really a new day for us.  But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.”

Until this day, Mama has always given in to Dee. Dee’s oppressive attitude has precluded her from being a part of the family.  They were not good enough for her.  She hated her house and watched with it burn down with interest, though her sister was severely injured.  Now, Dee wants to take the family heirlooms and use them for fashion.  The quilts belong to Maggie and Mama says “no” to Dee for the first time.

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