, Research Paper
Insecurity as a Root of Tyranny
“Everyday Use,” by the acclaimed author Alice Walker, is a thematic and symbolic adaptation of the author’s life and the lifestyle of the African-American population during the 1960’s. Reviewing Alice Walker’s life and the 1960’s provides the necessary background to understand the character development of this story. Walker was born in 1944, the daughter of poor southern sharecroppers in Georgia. The history of the Walker family predates slavery; therefore, many traditions of the pre-abolition Black American existed in Alice’s childhood. Alice was disfigured by a BB gun as a young child, leaving her with an insecurity that is clearly reflected in the character Maggie Johnson. In much of the same way that Dee Johnson left her roots to succeed intellectually, Alice left home to attend college and experience life outside her limited Southern environment. The obvious parallels between Alice Walker’s life and the characters in “Everyday Use” end here; however, the powerful and influential Black Renaissance of the 1960’s clearly influences Dee Johnson’s character in much the same way that it influenced Alice Walker (Selzer 72). Although Dee Johnson’s lifestyle closely parallels Alice Walker’s early life, the character’s immense insecurity is manifested in her elitist attitude, contemptuous regard for her family, and truly shallow understanding of her heritage.
Dee Johnson, the oldest daughter in a family rich in heritage, is an ambitious and aggressive young woman heavily influenced by the intellectual and cultural Renaissance of the 1960’s. Due to the heavy influence by external sources, Dee develops an elitist outlook due inadvertently to her increased intellectual and cultural understanding. The 1960’s brought spiritual awakening and epiphanic revelation to many people looking for a greater meaning to life. Because the Blacks of the Civil War era were the direct ancestors of the children of the 60’s, many African-Americans felt a need to separate themselves at all costs from their oppressive histories (Selzer 72). Dee Johnson is no different, and she is intent on proving her superiority to the oppressed and uneducated Black American. The contribution of the African heritage movement to Dee’s elitist personality is manifested in her decision to change her name to Wangero: “ ‘She’s
[Dee] dead…I couldn’t bear any longer being named after the people who oppress
me’ ”(Walker 283). While a stunning example of Wangero’s perceived superiority to
the average Black American, other examples clearly indicate Dee would count on this. Upon exiting the car wearing a “loud” dress and “dangling” (Walker 282) jewelry, Dee greet her family by saying, “ ‘Wa-su-za-tean-o’ ” (Walker 283). Although this word is never translated, Wangero’s use of foreign language in the presence of her relatively uneducated family is a clear indication of her desire to exhibit her intellectual superiority. Dee’s behavior implies that the changes in her personality are simply examples of her ancestry and newly found consciousness of intellect; however, her true motivation clearly stems from insecurity and selfishness. The incident with the quilts reveals Dee to be a product of trend. Dee initially had no desire for the quilts, but later becomes interested when Black-American heritage becomes fashionable. Dee Johnson is clearly an aggressive and potent force to be reckoned with consequently; her actions reveal immense insecurity and turmoil.
Insecurity forces people to despise those who feel secure and peaceful about their lives. Momma and Maggie own nothing of material value; however, both possess the one thing Dee desires: peace. Dee is unable to use her knowledge and cultural identity to gain peace in her life, so she becomes contemptuous towards her family because they live serene, yet modest, “uneducated” lives. Dee demands success in her pursuits and strongly urges her family to fall in line with her views. Dee will not accept her family as they are because they have the peace she so desires; therefore, she attempts to mold them by “…forcing words, lies, and other people’s habits” (Walker 281) upon them in an effort to destroy their secure lifestyle. Dee ensures however, that her seemingly impressive intellectual capacity and cultural awareness masks her insecurity. Obviously exhibiting contempt towards Maggie, Dee says, “ ‘ you ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie’ ” (Walker 286). Dee is fully aware that Maggie, while shy and defeatist, has a peace that Wangero will never have. Dee cannot fully realize that intellect cannot provide all that is necessary to succeed and rather than understanding her rich heritage, she chooses to use it and manipulate it.
In reality Dee Johnson is a product of trend. Although she confesses a superior understanding of her family’s rich heritage, Dee in fact is quite ignorant of her people’s past. She refuses to accept her family for who they are, and believes that if she oppresses them with her educated and yet opinionated views will be the means to deliver them. Ironically, by attempting to raise her family’s self expectations, she subjects them to a tyranny similar to the oppression she claims to despise. Dee is nothing more than a self-righteous, self-serving hypocrite whose desires are extremely shallow, which is reveled partially by Dee’s desires to be in style and fashionable. “ ‘ At sixteen she [Dee] had a style of her own, and knew what style was’ ” (Walker 281). Thus, when Momma tried to give Dee a quilt before she left for college, she said they were, “ ‘ old-fashion, out of style’ ” (Walker 286). Yet upon returning home, Dee decides that she must display the “priceless quilts” (Walker 286) in her home to ensure that heritage of the quilts is preserved. However, she does not understand the true heritage of the quilts, a fact revealed by Dee when she says that Maggie is “ ‘ backward enough to put them to everyday use’ ” (Walker 285). The irony of Dee-Wangero Leewanika-Johnson is evidenced by her ignorance of the true meaning of the quilts. The continued everyday use of the quilts by Maggie ensures that the heritage embodied in the quilts lives on. Momma and Maggie demonstrate lucid understanding of their family’s heritage despite lacking the education that Dee prizes above all else.
The painful evidence presented by Dee against her family’s lifestyle is an irrefutable testament to her insecurity. Dee will never possess the peace of mind that her family owns in abundance, so she bounces from trend to trend seeking solace. Unfortunately, Dee is so overpowering that Momma cannot realize the treasure in her own life. Momma admires Dee and desires to be the mother Dee will respect. A great irony exists because Dee has the intellect to discover true peace, while Momma has true peace but not the intelligence to realize it. Many young intellects become entrapped by the lifestyle of the university, and therefore lose touch with their past and their true identity. This problem is compounded when the gap between the intellect of the parent and the child is immense. Prior to the 1960’s, many believed that following in the footsteps of their family was the best course of action. In total contrast, the generation of the 1960’s and generations since believe that the wisest course of action is to separate themselves from their past. The case of Black America particularly exhibits this fact. Revolution is not always bad; however, for any new culture to succeed, its past must be studied. If one does not know where one came from, one cannot know where one is going. The Johnson family is classic example of the revolution that occurred during the 1960’s, a revolution of mind, body, and spirit.
Selzer, Jack. “Alice Walker.” Conversations: Readings for Writing. Ed. Jack Selzer.
2nd ed. New York: MacMillian, 1994. 72.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Eds.Laurie
G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 4th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 2000.