The post-Reconstruction paradigm of the mid-twentieth century West gave rise to a body of literature in which wordsmiths from marginalized castes penned compositions that highlighted the pervasive institutional inequities of their respective social microcosms. Beget of this period of civil dissension, “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker is a piece of short prose that examines conceptions of identity fabrication within the greater African diaspora and the meaning of ethnological heritage when juxtaposed with interpretations of the familiar past. Walker reduces the aforementioned sociological abstractions into their constituent parts by refracting them through a prism of intra-familial strife amidst the communal mores of the agrarian South; in essence, the author’s use of characterization as thematic symbolism concurrently exposes and subverts the audience’s internal assumptions about the structural aspects of cultural Africana. Thus, the dramatis personae of Dee, Hakim-a-barber, Maggie, and Momma respectively contribute to the overarching definition of the principal motif.
In order to attain a lucid understanding of what Walker is endeavoring to convey, one must first determine the machinations of each character as if parsing delicate hairs with a fine-toothed comb. The narrative begins with the family matriarch, Momma, waiting outside of her abode for the arrival of Dee from Augusta. This portion of the rising action is significant because it provides the reader with access to Momma’s stream of consciousness which informs ideations about the disposition of Dee before she appears in the text proper. Moreover, her recollections of Dee depict a woman who believes herself to be intellectually superior to the ancestral crucible that forged her and would force “words, lies…and whole lives” upon her immediate family. Underpinning Dee’s hubris is her contradictory attitude towards tradition which is revealed through her actions. While the decision to change her name to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” may seem like a benign ploy to assimilate into a recently adopted political framework, Dee’s declaration to Momma that her old self is effectively “dead” illustrates her desire for excision from her heritage entirely; where the name “Dee” was carried by several of her matrilineal progenitors and inextricably binds Wangero to her family, the Africanized moniker is devoid of such substantive history which allows it to act as a medium of dissociation.
Furthermore, Wangero’s polaroid pictures, which are a Proustian reminder of the history she has escaped, and her insistence on displaying lineal artifacts for artistic consumption are in direct conflict with her ethnocentric posturing. By rejecting the practical uses of items, such as “Grandma Dee’s quilts” and the “chute top,” in favor of their expressive value as fashionable accoutrements, Wangero is indulging in the same process of commodification of the black experience exhibited by the Anglo-American aesthetes she professes to oppose.
Accordingly, the male companion that accompanies Wangero to her mother’s provincial home is involved in the cultural nationalism of a putative Mohammedan sect. The predilections of Hakim-a-barber, whom Momma initially refers to as “Asalamalakim,” are hollow and rife with artifice. For instance, he states that the dogma of the faith is acceptable but its emphasis on georgic pursuits is “not his style” (Walker 4). This utterance suggests that Hakim-a-barber’s adherence is not grounded in devotional authenticity or a comprehensive understanding of the foundational tenets of the religion; rather, it is merely a vehicle by which he can convey his enmity through factional diatribes and function as a proselytizing force with respect to Wangero. In short, both Hakim-a-barber and Wangero are representative of the misapplication of reformist ideals as they relate to the African-American struggle for ethnic esteem. Conversely, the characters of Maggie and Momma are emblematic of “hard clay floors” and “pork liver cooked over the open fire;” more specifically, their particular characterizations allude to a traditionalism that is incongruous with the more progressive philosophy of Wangero. While it should be noted that Momma and Maggie are both proponents of the same customs, the cause for said system of belief differs between them. While Maggie clings to the conventions of her environ out of necessity, Momma does so out of dedication to her forebears who taught her the craft of animal husbandry. Maggie is the antithesis of Wangero in the strictest sense; where Wangero is of a “light” complexion and in possession of a perspicacious intellect, Maggie has a Stygian hue with a mind that “…is not bright”. Coupled with the trauma of a childhood fire, it can be posited that Maggie holds on to the security that accompanies familiar tradition as a bulwark against the unpredictability of a world that has already scarred her. The summation of Momma’s viewpoint lies in her testimony that Wangero “…burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know”. Here, Momma is clarifying that she is content with the breadth of her knowledge and her modest way of living.
Neither Walker’s text nor the characters elicited from her reason exist in a vacuum. With that being said, if Wangero had begun her pilgrimage to Augusta and subsequent conversion within the context of the contemporaneous, sociopolitical arena it is doubtful that she would be well received. Despite the intersectionality of post-modern feminism that ascribes a wide degree of latitude to assimilable positions, the militant nature and exclusionary measures of Wangero’s regard for African preeminence would be categorically rebuked; however, in the period of Walker’s America, Afrocentrism was a reactionary symptom of the far more insidious pathology that is racism. Additionally, her ideological inconsistencies, like when she first thought that the quilts were “…old-fashioned” before parlaying for the lot on her return home, could engender skepticism in a polarized era that craves fidelity from its public activists.
In closing, Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” is still apropos to understanding a social dichotomy that has beleaguered the African-American community since its mass manumission in the time of Lincoln. A weaver of quilts in her own right, whose thread is diction and patches are syntactic arrangements, Walker illuminates the duality or bicameral consciousness that underscores an alienated community. Where there is that most basal of yearnings for rapid progress towards a future that will finally provide equity in opportunity, it is paralleled with the realization that the price may be acculturation and the loss of a rich, ethnological canon.