Everyday Use

Everyday Use Womanism, Black Power, and a New Day

While Mama and Maggie's way of life can be interpreted as a celebration of the traditions of their ancestors, Dee's search for advancement is a testament to the atmosphere in which Walker wrote Everyday Use. Despite Mama's acceptance of her life, it is clear that the future she envisions for Maggie, an extension of her own, is not a step towards progress, and is rather steeped in the limitations placed on Mama by her generation. Even though Dee is immature and misguided, her sense of change feels urgent.

Dee's youth and naiveté is apparent, but her desperate search for a more authentic self reflects the more complex ideology of the Black Power movement burgeoning at the time. As a student in the 1960s, Alice Walker became heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement, working for voting rights in the South among other causes. Similarly, one can imagine Dee being caught up in Civil Rights and an exploration of her heritage as both African and American. Dee's name change is a reflection of the simmering angst against the white status quo that moved many black Americans towards identifying with African or even Islamic roots rather than white Christianity.

In addition to a contemplation on the Black Power movement's strengths and weaknesses, Everyday Use offers compelling insight into the roots of what Alice Walker calls Womanism. In her essay “In Search of our Mother’s Garden”, Walker writes about a quilt hanging in the Smithsonian Institute. This quilt was made by an anonymous Black woman from Alabama yet Walker felt that if they were to finally discover this woman, “she would turn out to be one of our grandmothers.” (Walker, 14-15) Like Walker, Mama understands that the power of one's identity is rooted in the ordinary, everyday lives of their ancestors.

In the 1970’s, Walker emerged as an activist and an intellectual. She shifted her focus from sheer activism to writing as a tool to express Civil Rights, a movement that influenced her early works of storytelling. Although Walker shared many of the ideals of the feminist movement in the 1970’s, she preferred to call herself a “womanist”. She felt the wider white feminist movement itself came with its own racial prejudices against black women. Being a “womanist” allowed Walker to fight for the rights of women without abandoning the unique challenges black women were faced with at the time.

As feminist awareness grew during the 1970’s, Alice Walker was not content with women merely taking on roles traditionally attributed to men. She would not accept that famous white women like Billie Jean King had become the face for female equality. Walker knew that black women not only faced brutal oppression from the white community but also brutal oppression at the hands of the black community. (Alumbaugh, 55) Domestic violence unleashed on women from within the black community was something that Walker was and is vocal about. This caused a backlash from some women in the feminist movement as well as some male leaders in the greater black community. Although it is not clearly stated in the short story Everyday Use, we can infer Mama’s emotional wounds and strong sense of self are the result, in part at least, of a less than ideal past marriage. At its core, Everyday Use is a complex portrait of the choices - or lack thereof - available to black American women in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, Walker continued to explore further complexities of feminism and black women in novels like, You Can’t keep a Good Woman Down (1981) and, perhaps her most widely known work, The Color Purple (1982), stories about the rich but often brutal lives of its protagonists - black women struggling with, surviving or surpassing oppression.