Does Alice Walker believe that the “Everyday Use” of the old quilts is protecting or destroying tradition? Remember from the Introduction that we are told that Alice Walker resembles each of the characters in her narrative.
The remarkable poem ‘Everyday use’ by Alice Walker was set in the late 60’s or early 70’s. “This was a time when African-Americans were struggling to define their personal identities in cultural terms.” Terms like “Negro” were slowly being removed from the vernacular and instead, were being replaced with “Black”. There was “Black power”, “Black Nationalism” and “Black Pride”. Many African-American individuals were looking to rediscover their African roots and were ready to discard and deny their American heritage, which was packed with stories of suffering and injustice. “In ‘Everyday Use’, Alice Walker argues that an African-American is both African and American and to deny the American side of one’s heritage is disrespectful to one’s ancestors and consequently, harmful to one’s self.” She used characters such as Mama, Dee (Wangero), and Maggie to illustrate this idea.
‘Everyday Use’ concentrates on the relationships between women from different generations and their lasting legacy, as symbolised in the quilts they fashion together. There is a powerful connection between the generations, yet Dee’s lack of understanding of her history shows how these relationships are vulnerable too. The bond shared by Aunt Dicie and Mama, the seamstresses who crafted the quilts is remarkably different from the bond between Maggie and Dee, sisters who barely interact with one another and who share almost nothing in common. Just as Dee struggles to comprehend the significance and legacy of her name which has been passed along through many generations, she also struggles to understand the significance of the quilts, which contain swatches of clothes once worn or owned by at least a century’s worth of ancestors.
“The quilts are pieces of living history, documents in fabric that chronicle the lives of the various generations and the trials, such as war and poverty, that they faced.” They also serve as a testament to the family’s history of pride and struggle. Due to the limitations placed on Mama by poverty and lack of schooling, she considers her personal history to be one of her greatest treasures, with her house containing an array of handicrafts given to her by her extended family. “Instead of receiving a financial inheritance from her ancestors, Mama has been given the quilts. For her, these objects have a value that Dee, despite professing her desire to care for and preserve the quilts, is unable to fathom.”
The reader is able to grasp the significance of the quilts and how they represent the bonds between family through the way the narrator describes the process of making the quilts:
“They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them.” These quilts aren’t just the creation of one single individual labouring away—“quilting for the Johnson women is an activity that involves bringing different generations together, as the narrator had to co-operate with her sister and mother to create the quilts.”