Everyday Use Essay Heritage Federal Credit

Everyday Use by Alice Walker Essay

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Everyday Use by Alice Walker

In "Everyday Use," Alice Walker stresses the importance of heritage. She employs various ways to reveal many aspects of heritage that are otherwise hard to be noticed.
In the story, she introduces two sisters with almost opposite personalities and different views on heritage: Maggie and Dee. She uses the contrast between the two sisters to show how one should accept and preserve one's heritage. Beyond the contrast between two sisters there exist the judge figure mom, the narrator and the Dee's irony. The irony on Dee's opinion is the key to understand the story and why the mother let Maggie keep the quilts, which symbolize the heritage.

The two sisters in the contrast of Alice Walker's "Everyday…show more content…

As the two sisters have different appearance and personalities, they have different perspectives on heritage that contrast each other. Walker uses quilts to symbolize the heritage and describes the two girls' view on quilts to show their perspectives on heritage. Maggie thinks of heritage as an attachment to her ancestors. She believes the everyday use of the inherited materials, how much ever value they may retain, will keep her connected to her ancestors. She values the attachment to the ancestors more than the inherited material itself. When she gives up the quilts to Dee, she states, "I can 'member Grandma Dee with the quilts." Dee, on the other hand, thinks of heritage as something that has an extrinsic value, for example its aesthetic value as an antique. She believes that the proper way to accept and preserve her heritage is to not put it into her everyday use but to cherish it only as an accessory. Such an idea is revealed when Dee says, "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts! She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use." When the mother asks Dee what she would do with the quilts, she says, "Hang them" (1177), which shows that Dee thinks of the quilts only as tangible antiques.

While the two sisters perspectives on heritage contrast each other, Walker employs a case of dramatic irony to prove that Dee's perspective is wrong, which automatically proves that Maggie is right, considering their opposite characteristics. Dee

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Either of the essays above could be a springboard into research into the civil rights movement, specifically, the Long, Hot Summer of 1967, the rise of an Islamic alternative to Christianity for African-Americans, Black nationalism and Afrocentrism, and even W.E.B. Dubois' defection to Africa in 1961.  Dee fancies herself to be Angela Davis, but she alienates her family and isolates herself from the "heritage" that she claims to know and love so much.

In either case, students would read the literary essay and then research some of the historical figures and events mentioned in relationship to the civil rights movement. How does Walker present Dee/Wangero as superficial version of black consciousness and to what effect? How does that help to explain Mama's choice?

Imagining an alternate ending:

The second research route into the short story would be through the long(-ish) lens of history since the short story was written. As I mentioned in the lede to this post, African American quilts have become sought-after objets d'art that sell for upwards of $20,000 and hang in museums all over the country.

When the beautiful quilts made by the women of Gee's Bend, Alabama arrived at the Whitney Museum in New York, they were greeted with ecstatic praise by the art community.  Michael Kimmelman of the New York Timeswrote:
[The quilts] turn out to be some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced. Imagine Matisse and Klee (if you think I'm wildly exaggerating, see the show) arising not from rarefied Europe, but from the caramel soil of the rural South in the form of women, descendants of slaves when Gee's Bend was a plantation.
Another exhibition of the quilts, this time at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, was also highly praised in the Smithsonian.  Neal Conan dedicated an edition of NPR's Talk of the Nation to showcasing the Whitney exhibit and the quilters, a broadcast that I have also embedded below. A playwright-in-residence of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder, even wrote a play--Gee's Bend--about the quilters, a play that has been performed at venues all around the country.
Now, all this effusive praise is indeed merited. The quilts really are shockingly beautiful:
University of Auburn has a webpage where you can view additional quilts, and Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland, Oregan has a collection of quilts for sale.

The fact that there is a price tag attached to the quilts drives home the idea that's implicit in Walker's short story: hanging the quilts on the hall instead of using them turns the quilts into a commodity instead of preserving the practice of making them.

One of the conversations, however, that emerges from this discussion is that younger generations (in Gee's Bend in particular) are newly motivated to learn the practice, and that the exposure that the women are getting now might contribute to a revival of the quilt-making tradition.

Another benefit of turning the quilts into aesthetic objects is to turn people's attention to these women as artists who matter. For example, the State of Alabama commissioned a series of interviews with the quilters to promote the "Year of Alabama Arts." I posted only one of the interviews below, but you can watch the whole playlist here.
The sense of pride that these women take in the fact that their work is respected and admired is both heartwarming and poignant.

An alternate research assignment would be to have students learn about the Gee's Bend quilters through the various links I've provided above and through their own independent research. Then ask students to write about how their research has affected their reading of Walker's short story either through expository writing or through a creative assignment such as revising the ending to the story or telling the story through Wangero's point of view. For ideas about incorporating creative writing into the classroom, see Erin Breaux's post Creative Writing in the Literature Classroom.

Mary Lee Bendolph, one of the famous quilters from Gee's Bend, AL, stands with a collection of the Gee's Bend Quilts. Photo by Matt Arnett, © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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