Each of us is raised within a culture, a set of traditions handed down by those before us. As individuals, we view and experience common heritage in subtly differing ways. Within smaller communities and families, deeply felt traditions serve to enrich this common heritage. Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" explores how, in her eagerness to claim an ancient heritage, a woman may deny herself the substantive personal experience of familial traditions.
Narrated by the mother of two daughters, the story opens with an examination of one daughter's favoring of appearances over substance, and the effect this has on her relatives. The mother and her younger daughter, Maggie, live in an impoverished rural area. They anticipate the arrival of the elder daughter, Dee, who left home for college and is bringing her new husband with her for a visit. The mother recalls how, as a child, Dee hated the house in which she was raised. It was destroyed in a fire, and as it was burning, Dee "(stood) off under the sweet gum tree... a look of concentration on her face", tempting her mother to ask, "'why don't you do a dance around the ashes?'" (Walker 91) She expects Dee will hate their current house, also. The small, three-room house sits in a pasture, with "no real windows, just some holes cut in the sides" (Walker 92), and although, as Dee asserts, they "choose to live" in such a place, Dee keeps her promise to visit them (Walker 92). Her distaste for her origins is felt by her mother and Maggie, who, in anticipation of Dee's arrival, internalize her attitudes. They feel to some extent their own unworthiness. The mother envisions a reunion in which her educated, urbane daughter would be proud of her. In reality, she describes her...
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...aking something for herself consists of putting on the garments of her heritage without truly living in them. As Dee says goodbye, Maggie smiles "a real smile, not scared" (Walker 97). She sits with her mother as they share a pinch of snuff "just enjoying." (Walker 97) Dee leaves two people who have in significant ways come to terms with her judgment of them and the way they live.
Our heritage threads through history past the people who contributed to it, to affect us on a personal level. To be fully appreciated and claimed, it must reside in the heart. Dee understands the heritage of people she doesn't know. In this way, her adopted heritage can be understood intellectually, but it is not felt, not personal, and not truly her own.
Walker, Alice. Everyday Use Ed. Barbara T. Christian. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
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