“Everyday Use” In “Everyday Use”, author, Alice Walker uses the backdrop of a small town family using characters Maggie and Dee and Mama to symbolize the dynamics of the greater African American color, educational and class struggle in America. She uses the family because it is an institution that every reader can identify with. This is a story of what it really means to “make it” in the Black family and Black community. Mama typifies the single parent who is functioning in the dual role of mother and father.
Walker makes no mention of Dee and Maggie’s father in the story but rather characterizes Mama as a “big-boned woman with man-working hands”(1) and gives Mama all the physical qualities and skills of a man but embodied in a woman. Mama can slaughter and prepare hogs and bull calves; she can bust up blocks of ice to get the water needed in the house for washing. And she can do all of these things as “mercilessly as a man”(1).
From the beginning of the story, Mama’s character takes on the strength and hardness of presencenormally represented in a man.
With Mama, the author shows the daily struggles and assimilation of the dual role that single mothers must embody on a daily basis inthe absence of a father figure. The outward display of Mama’s strength is a foreshadowing of the strength that she will have to summon at the end of the story when she must ultimately decide which daughter will receive the quilts. Mama’s children, Dee and Maggie have their own set of paradoxical differences which are juxtaposed against each other not unlike their mother. There is the conflict of light skinned versus darker skinned; well spoken and educated versus reticent and ignorant.
A shapely body with perfect feet versus a skinny and badly burned girl with no style. Brazen and head strong versus cowering and confused. Dee and Maggie are polar opposites of each other, with all of the positive attributes in the favor of the older sister, Dee. The author is illustrating how society has createsa disparity in the Black community with Dee and Maggie. Dee represents the portion of Black America that has tried to “make it” but has not leant a helping hand down to the people who have paid the way to make it possible for them to succeed in society and to get an education.
Dee has forgotten about all of the sacrifices Mama and Maggie have made which have allowed her to enjoy the benefits of her Neo-African-Islamic renaissance. It was Mama and Maggie who took part in raising money for Dee to live out her dream. Dee is symbolic of that portion small portion of society that refuses to both acknowledge and to give back to their families and communities. The only message that they can ever seem to offer is one of criticism and blame. The most vivid imagery of this is when the first house burns down; Dee is the only one who has made it outside safely.
She does not yell for help or try to ensure the safety of her mother and sister. She is transfixed on the flames and is seemingly hoping for the house and all of its inhabitants to be consumed as well. Dee stands out in the safety of the sweet gum tree while her mother and sister literally have to run for their lives. Walker shows us the paradox of a person who, having obtained safety, will not extend concern for similar struggles that will be shared by the family. The fire in the previous house beat Maggie’s spirit down. The fire represents the world having beat Maggie because she was not Dee.
Neither Maggie nor Mama had the good fortune to be of a fairer complexion like Dee. Maggie already had one strike against her by being dark, which would be made worse by being scarred by her environment (the house fire). Maggie has accepted that she is not bright like Dee and has resigned herself to her mundane life of poverty. She is ashamed of her scars and life experience so she cowers in the presence of strength and in the cruelty of society. Maggie’s natural inclination is to acquiesce. She realizes that she is no match for the likes of Dee and so she concedes the quilts that Mama has promised her to Dee.
Neither Dee nor Mama has realized that Maggie does have something to offer to the world. She has a capability and intelligence that are all her own. It is Maggie who knows the family history: she knew the name of Big Dee’s first husband, Stash and that he had whittled the butter dash(3); she made the observation that Dee has never had any friends; she has learned the art of family preservation through quilting with Grandma Dee and Big Dee. “Maggie knows how to quilt”(4). Maggie’s resourcefulness and knowledge are never acknowledged in the presence of Dee.
She can never shine quite as bright as Dee can. Society will never fully lay credit to all that Maggie can offer to the world because Maggie does not look like a person of value should look to us. Alice Walker has raised some challenging issues for us to ponder. How is value both assessed and ascribed? Does skin complexion still both afford some and exclude others from certain opportunities? Walker uses the most protected place on earth, the family structure, to show what some may be afraid to see within ourselves and in our society.
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