[(essay date spring 1996) In the following essay, Cowart demonstrates how "Everyday Use" reflects the cultural and literary status of minority writers, connecting the central character's attempts to attain autonomy with her repudiation of her ancestors' experiences and values.]
"Everyday Use," a story included in Alice Walker's 1973 collection In Love and Trouble, addresses itself to the dilemma of African Americans who, in striving to escape prejudice and poverty, risk a terrible deracination, a sundering from all that has sustained and defined them. The story concerns a young woman who, in the course of a visit to the rural home she thinks she has outgrown, attempts unsuccessfully to divert some fine old quilts, earmarked for the dowry of a sister, into her own hands. This character has changed her given name, "Dee Johnson," to the superficially more impressive "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo"--and thereby created difficulties for the narrator (her mother), who recognizes the inappropriateness of the old name but cannot quite commit herself to the new. She tries to have it both ways, referring to her daughter now by one name, now by the other, now by parenthetically hybridized combinations of both. The critic, sharing Mrs. Johnson's confusion, may learn from her example to avoid awkwardness by calling the character more or less exclusively by one name. I have opted here for "Wangero," without, I hope, missing the real significance of the confusion. Indeed, in this confusion, one begins to see how the fashionable politics espoused by the central character of Walker's story becomes the foil to an authorial vision of the African American community, past and present, and its struggle for liberation.
Walker contrives to make the situation of Wangero, the visitor, analogous to the cultural position of the minority writer who, disinclined to express the fate of the oppressed in the language and literary structures of the oppressor, seeks a more authentic idiom and theme. Such a writer, Walker says, must not become a literary Wangero. Only by remaining in touch with a proximate history and an immediate cultural reality can one lay a claim to the quilts--or hope to produce the authentic art they represent. Self-chastened, Walker presents her own art--the piecing of linguistic and literary intertexts--as quilt-making with words, an art as imbued with the African American past as the literal quilt-making of the grandmother for whom Wangero was originally named.
The quilts that Wangero covets link her generation to prior generations, and thus they represent the larger African American past. The quilts contain scraps of dresses worn by the grandmother and even the great-grandmother, as well as a piece of the uniform worn by the great-grandfather who served in the Union Army in the War Between the States. The visitor rightly recognizes the quilts as part of a fragile heritage, but she fails to see the extent to which she herself has traduced that heritage. Chief among the little gestures that collectively add up to a profound betrayal is the changing of her name. Mrs....