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Everyday Use | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Everyday Use | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use," first published in the 1973 anthology In Love and Trouble, focuses on Mama, a hardworking rural Southern woman, who lives with her disfigured daughter Maggie, and the return home of Mama's older daughter, Dee. To Mama and Maggie's surprise, Dee has changed her name and embraced the African aspect of her heritage, seeming to reject the rural Southern traditions that Mama and Maggie represent.

"Everyday Use" examines the relationships among mothers and daughters and delves into the meaning of cultural roots in families. Its focus on the conflict between rural and urban life, the effects of education, and the definition of art also helps to make this story one that has wide appeal to readers.

1. The three women in "Everyday Use" reflect Walker's own struggles as an artist.

The three main characters in "Everyday Use" are women, and all are, according to critic Constante González Groba, artists in their own ways. Mama is a storyteller; Maggie is a quiltmaker; Dee is a photographer and art collector and has in fact designed her own appearance. Walker has said she thinks of the three as aspects of herself: "I really see that story as almost about one person, the old woman and two daughters being one person." There is Mama who "stays and sustains," Maggie who "stays and abides and loves," and the "autonomous person" that is part of all of them.

2. Like the character Dee in "Everyday Use," Walker changed her own name.

Walker's given name was Alice Malsenior Walker. In 1994 she decided to change her middle name to Tallulah-Kate: "Tallulah" for her mother, Minnie Lou Tallulah Grant Walker, and "Kate" for Kate Nelson, her father's mother. Her name change may reflect a desire for a link to the past, just as Dee's name change does in "Everyday Use."

3. Some of the Africanized names and phrases in "Everyday Use" are misspelled, perhaps purposely.

Walker may have introduced spelling errors in "Everyday Use" to make a point. When the character Dee greets her mother, she says, "!" According to critic Jonathan Musere, this phrase means, "How did you sleep?" and should be written "Wasuz'otya nno?" or "Wasuze otya nno?" with a question mark. In addition, the Africanized last name Dee has taken, Kemanjo, is misspelled. Critic Helga Hoel points out Dee's last name is not a Kikuyu name, and Kemanjo should be spelled Kamenju. Hoel believes Walker included these errors on purpose to stress the fact that Dee has invented her new self.

4. Maggie's disfigurement in "Everyday Use" may reflect Walker's own disfigurement.

When Walker was eight years old, she was playing with her two brothers when one of them accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. The accident left her blind in that eye and badly scarred. She described the accident and its aftermath in an essay, telling of her shock and fear that her other eye would become blind. The worst thing, Walker wrote, was how she looked: "Where the BB pellet struck there is a glob of whitish scar tissue, a hideous cataract, on my eye." The scar was later repaired, but Walker did not "raise [her] head" for six years, and critics have claimed that Maggie's scars are a reflection of Walker's childhood scarring.

5. Quilts have several symbolic meanings in "Everyday Use."

Walker has included quilts in several of her fiction works as a way to connect characters to their heritage and identity. In "Everyday Use" Mama associates materials in the quilts in her home with the people who once wore those materials and with her own mother, as does Maggie. For Dee the quilts are art to be hung on the wall, though she also says, "These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all the stitching by hand." In fact, the quilts represent the conflict between the two daughters and their attitudes toward their heritage and thus between the old way of life and the new. According to scholar Elaine Showalter, they also represent the "central metaphor of American cultural identity."

6. The name, Wangero, that Dee takes in "Everyday Use" has several possible origins.

When Dee comes home to see her mother and sister, she informs them she has taken the name Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. The name has been said to mean "storyteller" and can be a personal name or a place name. One theory of its origin is in honor of Walker's friend Constance Nabwire, whose last name is sometimes referred to as "Wangero." Another idea is that the name comes from Wangero Hill in Uganda. Leewanika may be derived from Lubosi Lewanika, an African king from the late 1800s to early 1900s.

7. "Everyday Use" is perhaps the most frequently anthologized of Walker's short stories.

Critics agree the best known and probably most often anthologized of the Alice Walker's stories is "Everyday Use," probably because it is a "perfectly pitched saga" that focuses on women of "independence and ingenuity," the "tensions between Mrs. Johnson and her daughter Dee," and the role of heritage in African American lives—particularly as expressed through the symbol of quilts.

8. Some critics think Dee has a more valid way of dealing with oppression than Maggie does.

Critics until recently believed that Walker's depiction of Dee was meant to imply that her attempts at Africanization, from her clothing to her renaming of herself, were shallow and unimportant. The real center of the story, they claimed, is Maggie, whose simplicity and links with the past and her family's heritage were more valuable than Dee's newfound links with Africa.

However, in 1998 critic Susan Farrell claimed Dee's actions are a way of dealing with the oppression she faces—a way that is "more valid than that offered by Mama and Maggie." She pointed out because Dee is seen through Mama's eyes, and Mama doesn't view her daughter realistically, the depiction of Dee as shallow and flighty may not be accurate. Dee may actually be as solid as Maggie.

9. An educational film adaptation of "Everyday Use" was released in 2003.

A two-part film series called Alice Walker: Everyday Use, Uncommon Art has as its first part a filmed adaptation of the short story "Everyday Use." There is also an interview with Walker included in the series. The 26-minute film changes the story to a small degree, making the character of Mama somewhat less imposing.

10. An poem by Walker tells a story similar to "Everyday Use."

In 1973 Walker published a poem titled "For My Sister Molly Who in the Fifties." It describes the return of the speaker's sister (who, in real life, was Walker's older sister Mamie). The poem's speaker describes Molly as admirable because she "Knew Hamlet well and read into the night/And coached me in my songs of Africa/A continent I never knew/But learned to love." Molly seems intellectually and artistically superior to the speaker, just as Dee does to Maggie in "Everyday Use."

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