PLASTIC FLOWERS, MELTING SUN
By Aryan Bollinger
A tree is a worthy metaphor for family, for heritage. A tree starts with a seed that needs nourishment; a tree grows, and a tree can die. Some folks even trace their family’s history with a tree; many branches form aunts, uncles, and that annoying cousin who seems powerless to pass gas quietly. A tree forms from the sacrifice of others. If an adult maple did not give up a tiny seed, whole generations of saplings would never grow; some straight, some bent; some with branches to hold tire swings, others to make the paper on which I have written these words. To cultivate heritage, one must sacrifice, protect, and use. In the short story “Everyday Use,” the American author Alice Walker explores the authenticity of heritage and how being an African American in the 20th century has affected her characters’ definition of usefulness and their prioritization of pride. Our heritage is what we make of it; there are many options as to how we use it, but Walker’s characters—for the most part—learn where true heritage is found, and what can be done with a few blankets and a butter churn.
The only character in “Everyday Use” who seems to see clearly is the one whose eyes have been damaged: Maggie. Sight is a vital theme throughout Walker’s story and, ironically, the fire that burned down Maggie’s house “ten, twelve years” ago, and caused her “eyes [to be] stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them,” also instilled her with a more practical view of the world. The older daughter of this family, Dee, was standing safely outside the house during the fire, watching as her mother carried Maggie out. Dee’s involvement in the house fire is assumed because the mother of the two young women—also the narrator of the story—mentions “[Dee] had hated the house [so] much.” Maggie fears Dee through most of “Everyday Use,” so it is possible that Maggie knew her sister was the arsonist.
If we accept that Dee was involved with the blaze, we can learn a number of things about her character. Dee feels a need to control and manipulate; she enjoys seeing others hurt by her actions, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. The narrator refers to Dee’s intelligence and says that when Dee would read to them, Dee “pressed [them] to her with the serious way she read, [then] shoved [them] away at just the moment, like dimwits, [they] seemed about to understand.”
Maggie can plainly see her sister’s superior nature, and it agitates her. When Dee and a companion arrive at the house for a visit, Maggie makes a sucking noise: “uhnnnh…like when you see a snake just in front of your foot on the road.” Snakes have been used since Biblical times to represent a manipulative, dangerous character, and only Maggie can clearly see these traits in her sister.
Natural instinct aside, Maggie shows us that she appreciates her forebears by commenting on the butter dasher. When the question is raised as to who constructed it, she says, “Aunt Dee’s first husband whittled the dash…His name was Henry, but they called him Stash.” Maggie’s knowledge of family history seems to go unnoticed by her mother, but Dee remarks on her sister’s recall by saying, “Maggie’s brain is like an elephant’s.” Elephants are classically known to have a strong memory, but the bestial comparison is evident, even stretching to the mother’s way of looking at, and thinking of, Maggie. The narrator compares her daughter’s walk to a “lame animal, a dog run over… [sidling] up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him.” No one takes Maggie seriously and she is used to it. “[That is] Maggie’s portion. This [is] the way she [knows] God to work.”
Another facility that Maggie alone seems to grasp—at least in the beginning—is an authentic sense of heritage. Dee is clueless, but the narrator, blinded as she is by Dee’s panache, loses sight of how grounded and resourceful Maggie is. It is not until later when Dee bemoans her sister’s future use of the family’s quilts in a practical manner, that Maggie’s mother says, “Maggie knows how to quilt.” This means that Maggie has absorbed her heritage in a natural way and is capable of using her heritage to assist the family, thus continuing and reinforcing their culture. Maggie may wear her grandmother’s quilts to nothing, but she can create her own future with her own hands.
Dee discovers the quilts inside a trunk in her mother’s bedroom. She assumes ownership of them instantly, even though she had refused when her mother offered her the quilts “when she went away to college.” These old quilts were hand-stitched by Dee’s grandmother—also named Dee—following the Civil War. A small piece of “faded blue” fabric is present in one of the quilts, and is “from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War.” The Union affiliation is interesting because the story takes place in Georgia; Ezra had joined the Union Army to fight against the oppression of his family, fought to preserve his family’s heritage, long before Dee was born. Dee had refused the quilts because they were “old-fashioned, out of style,” and, in saying so, makes it clear that her idea of heritage is not only superficial, but relative to passing trends as well.
When asked about her intentions for the abducted quilts, Dee answers, “Hang them”—as in, put them on display. Before civil rights had any function in American society, African-Americans were hanged for no other reason than having a different skin color. This simple sentence speaks the most about Dee’s character because Dee is doing the same thing to her own culture, albeit in a more figurative sense. She wants to hang her heritage on display, to prove a point to others and, to a lesser degree, herself. Dee wants others to think she feels strongly about her remote past without having to work to understand or experience what truly makes her Dee. Because of her cultural blindness, Dee considers her home life a direct result of White America’s malice toward her race, while her sister, Maggie, accepts her family and immerses herself in her culture. By wanting to hang her family’s quilts, Dee is essentially stopping her heritage cold and destroying the knowledge and craftsmanship of her past, thereby enforcing the very thing she is fighting against: using a fragile façade of cultural awareness as an excuse for death.
Dee’s ignorance spreads further than to just “artistic” homemade tapestries. Upon arrival at her mother and sister’s home, Dee shows her eccentricities in her typical, flamboyant style alongside a newcomer. The narrator expresses that “it is hard to see [Dee and her male companion] clearly through the strong sun,” and that Dee is wearing a “dress so loud it hurt [her mother’s] eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun.” The dress Dee chooses to wear when meeting her family shows how important image is to her. It is her flashy character that her mother has always been in awe of; her mother shows a kind of confused respect, but only because she does not understand Dee. The narrator knows Dee has faults, but because of the “sun” (the aura of false supremacy, of false perfection), she is blind to them, making it hard for Dee’s mother to see her superficiality clearly. This “brightness” plays a large role in how Dee manages to manipulate her mother because after being initially stunned by Dee’s appearance, her mother thinks, “I like it.”
When Dee greets her mother in the front yard, she says, “Wa-su-zo-Tean-o,” and her beau says, “Asalamalakim.” These languages—Lugandan and Arabic, respectfully—were commonplace during the sixties as many African-Americans became self-determinists. These individuals put aside American culture, which had been vindictive towards them, in favor of African culture. Because Islam was a popular religion in Africa at that time, many self-determinists adopted Arabic phrases to emphasize their commitment to their cause. Ironically, Islam had only become popular in Africa during the 20th century; few African-Americans could have traced Islamic influence past their most recent relatives. Therefore, some self-determinists did not entirely understand their culture but simply fell into a fashionable trend. In contrast, Dee’s sister, Maggie, has put forth the effort to realize that her heritage is right where she is, not in a distant country. Dee’s confusion of the African Aesthetic (the practical use of beautiful tools) with the European Aesthetic (using beautiful things strictly as ornaments) shows her not only putting America aside, but also putting her family in a clichéd, condescending nook.
Dee and her companion talk to the narrator and Maggie although the youngest sister is an unwilling participant. “Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house…but [the mother stays] her with [her] hand. ‘Come back here,’ [the mother says].” As the newly arrived couple walks up to greet mother and daughter, the narrator starts to stand, but Dee says, “Don’t get up.” Due to Dee’s manipulative nature, this statement/command sums up how she feels about her mother and sister nicely. Maggie shows all the old fear and envy she has always had for Dee while the quartet makes conversation in the front yard. Her mother likely shares Maggie’s envy while Dee and her companion send “eye signals over her head.” It is obvious to the reader that the two self-determinists think of Maggie and her mother as simpletons, not without merit, but certainly without maturity or thoughtfulness.
The man who arrived with Dee calls himself Hakim-a-barber (that name being a shortened version). The narrator wonders if Hakim is a barber, but he has “hair to his navel,” so she figures he is probably not. Instead, she associates Hakim’s greeting with a similar one used by “those beef-cattle peoples down the road.” Hakim displays his lack of real cultural concern by assuring the narrator that he “accept[s] some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not [his] style.” The reader can see that while Hakim is more than willing to adopt a different culture’s principles, he is far from willing to adopt the same culture’s hard-working lifestyle; the way through which true heritage is formed and conveyed from one generation to the next.
As “Everyday Use” reaches its conclusion, Maggie’s mother has an epiphany. She has seen Maggie grow into the clumsy, skittish child she is today without ever looking further, and the reality of who the young woman has become shocks her. Years before, when the mother was sure that Dee would never bring her friends over to the three-room house, Maggie questioned, “Mama, when did Dee ever have any friends?” Such wit was ignored by her mother at the time, but as the narrator tells Dee that Maggie can make her own quilts—“It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught her,” knows that Maggie has “scarred hands,” and realizes that Maggie is a funny, talented, and sincere young woman, she does something she “had never done before: hugged Maggie.” If the narrator has never embraced her daughter before her moment of clarity, the envy and shame Maggie feels is not completely Dee’s fault. The mother has styled herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” Such rigid practicality is useful on a farm, but perhaps not so useful as a loving parent. In that moment, however, the narrator realizes she has something she thought was lost: a daughter of whom she can be proud.
Dee is a character who hardly wants an authentic heritage to call her own. Dee does not want the massive oak that symbolizes a strong family. No, that would take up too much space alongside her African memorabilia. What Dee wants—what she has—is an artificial shrubbery that resides, dust-covered, in the corner of her mind. The plastic bush is not alive, it will never grow, but that is just what some folks want: something to put aside and look upon with a self-satisfied smile, never having to worry about the bush becoming too large to understand or to manipulate. The story “Everyday Use” is a story about the good (but false) intentions and the pretty (but plastic) trees that stand everywhere. More importantly, though, it is a story about sacrifice, clarity, and growth. In other words, it is about using what we are given every day.