Lost Heritage in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” By contrasting the family characters in “Everyday Use, “Walker illustrates the mistake by some of placing thesignificance of heritage solely in material objects. Walkerpresents Mama and Maggie, the younger daughter, as an examplethat heritage in both knowledge and form passes from onegeneration to another through a learning and experienceconnection. However, by a broken connection, Dee, the olderdaughter, represents a misconception of heritage as material.
During Dee’s visit to Mama and Maggie, the contrast of thecharacters becomes a conflict because Dee misplaces thesignificance of heritage in her desire for racial heritage. Mama and Maggie symbolize the connection between generationsand the heritage that passed between them. Mama and Maggiecontinue to live together in their humble home. Mama is a robustwoman who does the needed upkeep of the land, I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter, I wear overalls during the day.
I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. I can work outside all day. One winter I knocked a bull calf straight in the brain with a sledge hammer and had the meat hung up to chill before nightfall. (Walker 289) And Maggie is the daughter, “homely and ashamed of the burn scarsdown her arms and legs,” (Walker 288) who helps Mama by making the yard so clean and wavy” (Walker 288) and washes dishes “inthe kitchen over the dishpan” (Walker 293). Neither Mama norMaggie are ‘modernly educated persons; “I [Mama] never had aneducation myself. Sometimes Maggie reads to me.
She stumblesalong good-naturedly She knows she is not bright” (Walker 290). However, by helping Mama, Maggie uses the hand-made items in herlife, experiences the life of her ancestors, and learns thehistory of both, exemplified by Maggie’s knowledge of the hand-made items and the people who made them–a knowledge which Deedoes not possess. Contrasting with Mama and Maggie, Dee seeks her heritagewithout understanding the heritage itself. Unlike Mama who isrough and man-like, and Maggie who is shy and scared, Dee isconfident, where “Hesitation is no part of her nature,” (Walker289) and beautiful: “first glimpse of leg out of the car tells me it is Dee. Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God had shaped them Dee next. A dress down to the ground
Earrings gold, too (Walker 291) Also, Dee has a ‘modern’ education, having been sent “to a schoolin Augusta” (Walker 290). Dee attempts to connect with her racialheritage by taking “picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included” (Walker 291). Dee takes an another name without understanding her originalname; neither does Dee try to learn. Also, Dee takes some of thehand-made items of her mother’s such as the chum top which shewill use “as a centerpiece for the alcove table” (Walker 293).
Dee associates the items with her heritage now, but thoughtnothing of them in her youth as when the first house burnt down. Dee’s quest of her heritage is external, wishing to have thesevarious items in order to display them in her home. Dee wants theitems because she perceives each to have value, as shown in thedialog between Dee and Mama about the quilts after dinner. Dee’s valuing of the quilt conflicts with Mama’s perceptionof the quilts.
Dee considers the quilt priceless because thequilt is hand-stitched, not machined, by saying, “There are allpieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all thisstitching by hand. Imagine!” (Walker 294). Dee plans to displaythe quilts or “Hang them,” (Walker 294) unlike Maggie who may put them to everyday use” (Walker 294). However, Mama “promisedto give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries ” (Walker294). Mama knows there exists a connection of heritage in Maggie:Mama knows that “It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught[Maggie] how to quilt” (Walker 294).
Because of Maggie’sconnection, Mama takes the quilts from Dee who “held the quiltssecurely in her arms, stroking them clutching them closely toher bosom” (Walker 294) like sacred idols, and then gives them toMaggie. After Mama gives Maggie the quilts, Dee says, “You justdon’t understand Your heritage” (Walker 295). Dee believesheritage to be the quilt on the wall or the churn in the alcove. Dee knows the items are hand-made but not the knowledge andhistory behind the items. Yet, Mama does know the knowledge andhistory and knows that Maggie does too. Ironically, Deecriticizes Mama for not understanding heritage when, in fact, Deefails to really understand heritage. Dee mistakenly placesheritage wholly in what she owns, not what she knows.