The Theme of Heritage in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker

Introduction

Are heritage and tradition different for people who belong to the same culture? The story Everyday Use, written by Alice Walker, portrays two various overviews of one’s heritage under the circumstances that the two polar viewpoints belong to people within the same family. On the one hand, Mama is a continuation of generations that have lived through slavery and have changed, alternating the traditional African ways of life while remaining loyal to the values exacerbated by direct ancestors. On the other hand, Dee, the daughter, discovers new ideas about her African roots and disregards the more Westernized values of her family, emphasizing the ethnical connotations of the cultural background she belongs to. However, the two life choices related to how one portrays the heritage are not only different concerning values but also to their physical manifestation. The short story illustrates the theme of heritage, its subjectivity, and how one interprets and externalizes it. While both women demonstrate respect for their ancestors by their actions, they display it in controversial ways, which causes misunderstandings.

Heritage as a Value

Mama and Dee have opposite overviews on the meaning and value of heritage. Specifically, the ideas differ based on how they interpret cultural protection. In Mama’s case, she preserves the culture by sharing the experience of her ancestors, continuing the legacy of her family, and maintaining strong family bonds. On the other hand, Dee disregards her family’s history since it was critically shaped by oppression and slavery. An example is when she mentions Dee being dead and wanting to be called Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo since she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me” (Walker, 1973, p.3). On the other hand, her name has a meaning related to her family’s history. As Mama points out, “you was named after your aunt Dicie” (Walker, 1973, p.3). However, since the name is not traditional, Dee ignores it due to westernizing Africans being given names that align with the oppressive history.

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It is clear that heritage has various values for both. For Mama, it is about honoring the culture as it transformed through the generations prior to her since each ancestor had a personal history that modified them. Dee, however, believes in traditional values, and if they change because of adaptation of oppression, they lose authenticity and value. Thus, the theme of heritage is illustrated through the perception of oneself through the origin, which each character interprets in their own constructive way.

Manifestation of Heritage

The issue of heritage is also portrayed through how the characters choose to manifest it. The presentation is critically different and illustrated through how both Mama and Dee decided to implement parts of their culture in their lives through direct involvement or demonstration. An element that best describes the diversity in approaches is the quilt. As a traditional African textile, the quilts have a deeper meaning in terms of the characters’ heritage.

However, Mama believes they have to be used in order for the tradition to be expressed. Thus, she points out that she is leaving them to the other daughter, Maggie, stating that “God knows I been saving ’em for long enough with nobody using ’em. I hope she will!”. Based on this approach, the manifestation of one’s heritage is how one chooses to apply tradition in day-to-day life and provide physical meaning to the culture. On the other hand, Dee chooses to showcase the pieces, suggesting that “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!”. Instead, she decides to hang them and create a visual representation of her heritage. The difference is that Mama would rather see the tradition live rather than be showcased. In one case, the culture has a deeper meaning, connecting generations and continuing to live on. In the other one, it becomes imagery, which ultimately defeats its purpose and turns it into a spectacle or a performance.

It is also significant to mention the generational gap in the short story because Dee understands the concept of heritage in a much more comprehensive way. Mother’s worldview and traditions can be explained as the following “Mama was defined in the culture that spread her confidence and was such that she was inferior because of the color of her skin” (Bell, 2019, p.7). Thus, it is difficult for her to understand that the world around her may be interesting to the culture. At the same time, it seems to the progressive girl that she should not only learn the skills of her ancestors and use their things but demonstrate them to the public. It is quite possible that the effect of this abstraction of heritage could be global. More people would be able to contemplate things new to them and take an interest in the history of this family and nation. As a result, it would be possible not only to respect and appreciate the ancestors’ life experiences but also to explore and share them. In this way, the history of this family and heritage spread throughout society and will continue to do so for a long period.

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Conclusion

The central theme of heritage is exemplified through constructivism in relation to the distinction in perception and manifestation of one’s cultural background. Both Mom and Dee have a deep sense of respect and reverence for their culture and ancestors, but they prefer to express it differently. Mama’s heritage is her ancestors’ traditional way of life, the memories they left behind, and the experiences they had, both beneficial and destructive. Dee’s heritage is a less subjective one as she views culture as an artistic experience and a way to visually and behaviorally represent her ethnicity. Thus, while remaining active in how both the mother and daughter perceive the world around them, heritage contrasts in how it is externalized. The contrast between the two viewpoints illustrates the significance of the theme in the short story and the ambiguity of the subject as described by the author’s polar representation of the same notion. It is significant to mention that heritage appreciation and cultural preservation have the right to happen in both manifestations.

References

Bell, J. (2019). Like Mother, Like Daughter: Parental Expectations in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”. McNair Scholars Research Journal, 1(1), 6-15.

Walker, A. (1973). Everyday Use. Harper’s Magazine.

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