[(essay date 1999) In the following essay, Hoel analyzes Walker's choice of African and Arab character names in the short story "Everyday Use."]
The short story "Everyday Use"1 is central in Alice Walker's writing, particularly as it represents her response to the concept of heritage as expressed by the Black political movements of the 60s. Despite its importance, no adequate explanation of the African and Arab names used in the text has to my knowledge appeared. Yet Walker was very careful in her choice of names, which signify an important part of her characterization.
"Everyday Use" is found in Alice Walker's collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble, which was published in 1973.2 This was in the heyday of the Black Power ideologies when "Black was beautiful," the "Afro" hairstyle was in fashion and Blacks were seeking their cultural roots in Africa, without knowing too much about the continent or the routes of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Or as Clara and Inger Juncker say in their notes to the short story in their anthology of Afro-American Women Writers, Black Roses from 1984:
Dee has joined the movement of the Cultural Nationalism, whose major spokesman was the black writer LeRoi Jones (Imamu Baraka.) The Cultural Nationalists emphasized the development of black art and culture to further black liberation, but were not militantly political, like, for example, the Black Panthers. The ideas of the Cultural Nationalists often resulted in the vulgarization of black culture, exemplified in the wearing of robes, sandals, hairspray "natural" style, etc.3
Sometimes this took on strange forms. In 1969 I was a student at Antioch College in Ohio. This was a time when it was progressive to have co-ed and co-racial dorms, so when the Black students at Antioch wanted a segregated dorm for Blacks only, the House of Unity, it created quite a row. In hindsight, in the light of the women's movement in the 70s it is easy to see the need for the Blacks to stick together for conscious-raising purposes. The Black students at Antioch took Swahili classes in 1969 at their all-black Afro-American Studies Institute and gave their house a seemingly Swahili name.
"House" in Swahili is "nyumba," but the sign at Antioch reads "Nyambi Umoja." Did they not know better? Their teacher was not a native Swahili speaker himself, but a Kisii from Kenya. The Kisii speak a related Bantu language and house is, incidently, spelt the same way in Kisii and Swahili. The way the Black Antioch students used it on their House of Unity was probably just an unfortunate spelling mistake. "Umoja" is, however, the correct form of "unity."
My point in writing about this is to illustrate the often misleading concepts the Blacks around 1970 had about Africa. The Atlantic slave trade had brought most Black Americans from West Africa where Swahili is not spoken, so it would probably have made more sense to learn some West-African language if they really were looking for their...