Historical Context

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The Black Power Movement

Even before their emancipation from slavery, African Americans struggled to define their collective identity within the framework of American society. Even after slavery was outlawed, blacks gained the right to vote, and legal decisions dismantled formal segregation, true equality was far from reality. By the 1960s, following the success of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, some African Americans began to take pride in their heritage as a way of bolstering their esteem, forging a group identity, and creating a platform for greater political power. Known as "black pride" or Black Nationalism, these ideas encouraged many young African Americans to learn about their cultural ancestry, grow their hair into "Afros," dress in traditional African clothing, and reject their "slave names" (as Malcolm X called most blacks' given names). Many of these tendencies are exhibited by Dee and Hakim-a-barber in "Everyday Use." The Black Panthers, led by former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee president Stokely Carmichael, embodied these ideas in their ''black power'' slogan as they fought for civil rights and voter registration. However, by the early 1970s, many of these organizations were accused of discrimination against women in the way they were organized and run, and writers like Walker sought to portray the voice of the black woman apart from a larger political context.

The Nation of Islam

Another form of African American self-assertion that gained popularity in the early 1970s was the Nation of Islam, a religious and political organization founded in the 1930s and known popularly as the Black Muslims. This movement, which since Malcolm X's death in 1965 has been led by Louis Farrakhan, asserts that white society is not capable of being nonracist. Furthermore, instead of seeking integration, the organization encourages blacks to separate themselves into an independent community within the United States (a rejection of the back-to-Africa beliefs of earlier African-American separatists). Like Dee Johnson, a.k.a. Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, Black Muslim followers usually change their names, symbolically rejecting white society by rejecting their ''slave names." The Nation of Islam also espouses the home as the center of community life, with a male-led family and a helpful, supportive wife and mother.

The Black Arts Movement

The cultural extension of the Black Power movement was the Black Arts movement, a conscious effort by many artists and critics to celebrate African-American culture for its own forms, ideas, and styles, rather than seeing it as derivative of European-American culture. This movement focused on the works of black artists and writers, and on the validity of various forms of black folk art, including quilts and other items normally put to ''everyday use.'' Some artists, such as Alice Walker, questioned what they saw as three particular deficits of the Black Arts movement: its tendency to speak for all blacks in a subtle assumption that all blacks' experiences were the same; its conception of blackness in almost entirely masculine terms; and its implication that urban black experience is somehow more ''real'' than rural black experience. Walker addressed all three of these concerns in "Everyday Use," articulating most eloquently an early assertion of Black Feminism.

Black Feminism

As the women's movement gained momentum in the early 1970s, many African-American women began to consider themselves excluded from it because it appeared to advocate rights important mostly to white women. They pointed out, for instance, that when suburban housewives spoke of wanting to do more than take care of their homes, they were ignoring the experiences of African-American women, most of whom already worked outside the home, as their mothers and grandmothers before them had. By the...

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mid-1970s, many black women, including Walker, articulated a distinctly Arrican-American form of feminism that heralded the efforts of one's immediate matriarchal ancestors. Some of these concerns are addressed in "Everyday Use.''

Compare and Contrast

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1971: The Supreme Court upholds busing students to various schools in order for them to achieve greater racial integration.

1995: Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam leads the Million Man March in Washington, DC, as a show of solidarity and an opportunity for black men to publicly declare their support for family values.

1974: A black militant organization called the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnaps heiress Patty Hearst, forces her to rob a bank, and commits several other crimes.

1996: Drive-by shootings spurred by gang rivalries claim the lives of African-American musicians Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.

1973: Census bureau statistics place the poverty rate for a family of two at $2,984 per year.

1995: The poverty threshold for a family of two is $10,259 per year.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading