Traditions in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker are important to both Dee and her mother, but they have different meanings. For Dee’s mother and her sister Maggie, traditions are built on a foundation of inherited objects and ways of thinking while for her daughter, traditions are something that no longer have everyday use and are corrupted by history. Most importantly, in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, these traditions are all based in a learning and education and the way of thinking possessed by each character has shaped the traditions they rely on. In terms of this analysis and summary of themes in “Everyday Use” one should note that that these two ways of thinking about African American traditions create the tension in the short story and although there is no “correct” viewpoint about these traditions expressed, the set up of the story allows the reader to consider both sides.
The plot of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker itsekf Even from the beginning of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, it is clear there is a tension between Dee and her family because of her outside education. She is no longer tied to the world of everyday usefulness (working around the land and the house) but is more related to the world of education and a more ethereal kind of usefulness. For her mother, the situation is quite the opposite. Her knowledge is useful and grounded in her everyday tasks. She gives a summary of her farm-related accomplishments and brags of being able to kill a hog like a man and can cook and take care of the homestead. Because the reader gets the sense that she is steeped in an educational tradition that emphasizes usefulness, she is at odds with the educational traditions of her daughter, Dee, who has been to school away from home. This tension between educational traditions is one of the main themes in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker and is apparent after Dee’s mother details what she knows about (usually related to farm tasks) but when she discusses her daughter’s educational traditions, she speaks almost disdainfully, saying, “She used to read to us without pity, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know.” To her mother, Dee’s knowledge is foreign and is tinged with an element of danger since it includes “lies” and “other folks’ habits” and worse yet, it makes her mother and sister, who have a different tradition of learning feel “ignorant and trapped” with knowledge that her mother feels is not necessary.
In “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, traditions based in learning extend far beyond ways of thinking about issues or objects, they also inform the way each character expresses her outer identity. For instance, Dee’s mother admits that she is a solid and “big boned” woman who was built for work which her daughter, who has been around more educated people, does not find attractive since it does not suit her ideal of what a modern black woman should look like. Her mother is aware of this, saying that if she were to appear on television, she would be, as she describes in one of the important quotes from “Everyday Use”by Alice Walker, “the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake.” In other words, because of her tradition of education in the modern (read as “white-influenced” world) Dee would find that her mother is does not fit what her education has taught her is attractive. Again, there is the traditional tension between what is beautiful and attractive at odds with what is practical and useful. There is no right or wrong way for a person to be, but the author is showing how these traditions are at odds. To Dee, coming home with her big gold hoop earrings and bright long dresses is a demonstration that her traditions have changed. Her mother finds it difficult to get over this change saying, “At sixteen she had a style of her own and knew what style was” and she also admits that, “Often I fought off the temptation to shake her.” Just as with the case of the quilts, her mother thinks they should be useful and not decorative while her daughter, with her different educational traditions believes that they should not go to use and should stand for something.
The most prime example of traditions creating tension as a result of education in “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker is that of the name change Dee takes on after she finds fault with her mother’s tradition of naming children after relatives. When she tells her mother about her name change, Dee, now Wangero, says, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” Her mother does not know what to say to this although she does try to accept it. For her, names are based on a tradition in which there was not a lot of thought about a name and they were used as something that was useful since they connected one family member to another. When considering her choice of “Dee” Wangero’s mother thinks back to Beg Dee, whom her daughter was named after and says, “That’s about as far back as I can trace it…Though in fact, I probably could have carried it back beyond the Civil War through the branches.” Again, this is a prime example of educational traditions at odds since Dee/Wangero has been taught to consider the social and political implications of a name and to connect importance to these while her mother’s traditions have relied on naming children after other family members.
In any of the cases highlighted above in this essay, it is never clear if the Alice Walker in “Everyday Use” is trying to express the belief that one set of traditions is better than the other. Instead, it seems that she is trying to show how one’s education influences thoughts about traditions. This demonstrates that traditions are mutable and can be changed over time if the right influences exist. It also seems to show that traditions are rooted in everyday use and thus just as the thesis statement for this Walker story and, for that matter, for this summary of “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker contends, both the frame and meaning of the story are contained in the title. For Wangero, her uses are served by thinking critically about her past since she is not actively required for work on her family’s land. For her mother, however, these thoughts serve no use and it is best, because of her setting and influences, to focus on that which is conducive to everyday use. By the end of the story, the title takes on more significance as we see that traditions are rooted in their use in a given situation and that they are prone to change.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Existentialism in “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” by Alice Walker • Jazz by Toni Morrison : The Symbolic Significance of the Title • The Role of Oppression in “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston • Analysis and Summary of “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston • Analysis and Summary of “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston • Analysis of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes