PERSONAL NAMES AND HERITAGE: ALICE WALKER'S «EVERYDAY  USE»

by Helga Hoel, Trondheim Cathedral School, Trondheim, Norway:e-mail address

This paper on Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" was first presented at ASANOR's pre-conference for high school teachers at Hamar, Norway on October 3, 1997 and was later printed in Språk og Språkundervisning no 4 1997. In this revised version aimed at a wider audience, the footnotes are incorporated into the text. A slightly different printed version can be found in American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol.31 - No. 1 - 1999, Odense University Press, Denmark. That version is also printed as ”Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s 'Everyday Use.'” American Studies in Scandinavia 31, no 1 (1999): 34-42. Reprinted in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena Krstovic. Vol 97. Detroit: Gale, 2007. 311- 315, but this internet page is the ultimate version and the one I prefer to be quoted from, as I have found that I misinterpreted some information that was first given to me. I have also added an important postscript here as a warning against  jumping to conclusions without double checking sources.

You are welcome to copy this paper for academic use, but not for commercial purposes without the permission of the author.
Home


The short story «Everyday Use» 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. (All my quotations from the short story are from the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, inc. paperback edition from 1973). 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 Atlatic 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:

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 and gave their house a seemingly Swahili name.


Photo: Helga Hoel, 1969

«House» in Swahili is «nyumba», but the sign at Antioch reads "nyambi". 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". (See Post Script for new information).

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 roots. The Arab slave trade from East Africa generally sent slaves to the Arab peninsula and to the plantations on the islands in the Indian Ocean.

The program at Antioch was one of the first of its kind, but it was not unique. As one can read about social history at the end of the 60s in Becoming American, An Ethnic History by Thomas J. Archdeacon from 1983:

A new generation of scholars discovered that blacks, too, had a valuable past, and  popular interest grew both in the elements of African heritage that had survived slavery  and in the Afro-American culture created under the conditions of the New World. Even  moderate leaders perceived a need for blacks to take control of the schools and  institutions that most directly affected their lives. (p.216)
Or as one can read in A People and a Nation by Mary Beth Norton et al from 1994:
College students pressed for black studies programs, and activists adopted the terms  black and  Afro-American in preference to Negro. Once again as in the 20s, African  Americans saw themselves as a nation within a nation. (p.1002)
Alice Walker knows better than the black Antioch students from 1969. She has lived in Africa long enough to see the difference between the reality there and the idealized Africa of the cultural nationalists. She criticizes their shallow knowledge of Africa in subtle terms. She won a scholarship as an exchange student to Uganda in 1964 after her junior year in college. She also visited Kenya in the summer of 1965 as can be seen in her first collection of poetry, Once, which was partly «written in Africa, while sitting underneath a tree facing Mount Kenya, or at Sarah Lawrence College in New York where I was completing my senior year», as she says on page 3 in the introduction to Once in Her Blue Body Everything We Know, her collected poems from 1991. Once was, however, first published in 1968. The first section in this volume is called «African Images - Glimpses from a Tiger’s Back». I repeat: From a Tiger’s Back. As we all know, the only tigers in Africa are found in zoos, and Alice Walker relates that a friend of hers protested and said that she could not use this title when she wrote about Africa. She responded with a poem:
There are no Tigers
in Africa
You say.
Frowning.
Yes. I say.
Smiling.
But they are
very beautiful (p.4)

I include this because it may tell us that fact and fiction may also be blurred when Alice Walker talks about Africa. The first two poems from the Tiger’s Back section read as follows:

Beads around
My neck
Mt. Kenya away
over pinappled hills
Kikuyuland.
A book of poems
Mt .Kenya's
Bluish peaks
"Wangari!"
My new name. (pp8-9)

The footnote on page 9 in her collected poems says «Wangari is a Kikuyu clan name indicating honorary acceptance into the Leopard clan». In «Everyday Use» Alice Walker lets the educated sister Dee introduce herself as Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. The uninformed reader may think this is an ordinary African name. I assure you, it is not.

Even a casebook on «Everyday Use» edited by Barbara T. Christian on Rutgers University Press from 1994 only added to the confusion of the African names since it mistakenly noted that,

In the next paragraph it says: These important names Dee bases her new-found identity on resemble Kikuyu names, but they are all misspelt. Wangero is not a Kikuyu name, but Wanjiru is. It is one of the other original nine clan names of the Kikuyus. (Cf. Kenyatta's Facing Mount Kenya, Secker & Warburg London 1961, p. 8) The last of the three names is also distorted. The correct Kikuyu name is Kamenju. The middle name is not a Kikuyu name at all. One of my Kikuyu informants told me he knew a lady from Malawi who was called Le(e)wanika. Later (in January 2000) I  found out that there was a king Lewanika in Barotseland in Zambia from 1842 - 1916. Alice Walker may have wanted  Dee "who knew what style was" (p. 50  in In Love and Trouble)  to assume a royal touch as an African princess. The names are therefore a mixture of names from more than one ethnic group and maybe that is the point. Dee has names representing the whole East African region. Or more likely, she is confused and has only superficial knowledge of Africa and all it stands for.

This idea is strenghtened when you look at the other African phrase Dee Wangero uses in the short story. She greets her mother: «Wa-su-zo-Tean-o». This is a Luganda phrase showing how the Buganda people of Uganda say «Good Morning». It can be translated as something like "I hope you have slept well". One can wonder why she uses this greeting when she must know that the phrase will make no sense for her mother.

What this adds up to is a pan East African mixture of names and phrases used by Dee in the story. Add to this her long, flowing dress, which is probably a West African feature. The only Africans I have seen in traditional flowing dresses in East Africa are the Muslim women on the coast hiding inside their black bui-buis. Otherwise colorful traditional dresses are made of two pieces such as the kangas in Tanzania or have a distinct waist line with a sash, such as the busutis in Uganda. Of course I have seen and even bought and used long, flowing gowns made for tourists, but they have nothing to do with traditions, only with fashion.

Then you may ask: Does Dee know or care? or Does Alice Walker know or care? I believe Alice Walker does know, and that she has made Dee embrace this confusion of misunderstood cultural bits and pieces from all over Africa on purpose either to let Dee represent anything African or to portray her as a very shallow and superficial young woman who does not bother to check her sources. Dee follows the fashion, and right now it is «in» to celebrate the distant African roots. She has discarded her given name, Dee because as she says: "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me."(p.53 in In Love and Trouble). She fails to understand that the name, Dee, also goes back several generations on the American continent and therefore is more part of her heritage than an adopted African name which does not even make sense.

Christian goes on to say this about Walker and African names:

Dee’s companion in the story, Hakim a Barber is a Black Muslim who greets the mother and sister with the well known Arab greeting Asalamalakim ( as-salam alaykum) which means «peace be with you». The mother in the story, Mrs Johnson, at first thinks this is his name, that he is introducing himself, and some confusion arises till he tells her that she can call him Hakim a Barber. This is a corruption of the name Hakim al Baba since Barber is not an Arab name, but in Mrs Johnson's mouth it would probably have been pronounced the same way. This is most likely Alice Walker’s way of mocking people who shred their recent roots to take on foreign names without questions. These names clearly make no sense to ordinary sensible people.

Walker may know that Hakim means (religious) ruler or leader and she therefore adds to the irony when Mrs Johnson, who is a practical woman, shows that she has respect for her Muslim neighbors when she says: «You must belong to those beef-cattle peoples down the road. They said «Asalamalakim» when they met you, too». But her daughter’s city dwelling companion answers: «I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my style». He accepts what is suitable for him and leaves the rest. Some spiritual leader to guide you, you could say! He does not eat pork though, something Dee delights in, but she does not have a Muslim name either.

Alice Walker said in an interview with John O’Brien in 1973, here quoted from Barbara Christian’s book :

All in all this couple is put in an unflattering light and you can of course say that it is not necessary to know about the confusion of their names to understand that. I still argue that this knowledge adds depths to the understanding of the characters in the story.

In the story, and certainly in the many comprehension questions textbook writers and exam paper writers have made to guide our teaching of the story, Dee seems to be the villain and Maggie the hero. The ugly uneducated sister wins the love and affection of the mother at the end where they «sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed», as the story concludes. (p.59).

The quiltmaking sister is the one preferred and accepted because as Nikki Giovanni says in «Hands: For Mother’s Day» from her collection of poems Those who Ride the Night Winds from 1983:

This is the same thought which Alice Walker herself expresses in her famous essay «In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens» from 1974. (pp 231 -243). The central idea here as in «Everyday Use» is the celebration of the anonymous women who have been able to devise something beautiful and functional out of throwaways. In both texts the quilt is the central metaphor for this unrecognized female creativity. Art is made for everyday use, not for art's sake.

The preference of Maggie over Dee makes me uncomfortable as an educated woman partly estranged from my roots myself.. I have no wall space on which to hang the quilt I inherited from my great-aunt, but the family churn has a prominent place in my living room as has also my mother’s spinning wheel. I do not know how to quilt, I do not know how to make butter in that churn and I cannot spin. Am I therefore a fool because I not only keep, but also strongly cherish this part of my heritage? And what about the Luo name that was given to me in Kenya which I still proudly use in certain circumstances?

Mary Helen Washington, has an insightful essay in the already mentioned casebook on «Everyday Use» where she refers to an interview she had with Alice Walker (also in 1973), where Walker said about the women in «Everyday Use» that she thinks of these three characters as herself split into three parts. Walker goes on to say:

In her essay Mary Helen Washington argues: And we may add that she has also created her own name and thereby identity. But what Washington sees as most important in a postscript to her essay on Alice Walker is that this is above all a short story about what it means to be a female artist. She compares «Everyday Use» with another of Walker’s stories: «A Sudden trip Home in the Spring» from Walker’s second collection of short stories from 1981, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down.  In «A Sudden Trip Home» the sculpture artist, Sarah, is at the end granted «permission» for her art through her relationship with her male relatives. In «Everyday Use» this is not the case. Washington says about Walker: Female fiction writers found it more difficult to be accepted than quiltmakers, garden makers or even blues singers in 1973, since fiction writing was still dominated by male writers, male publishers, male critics and male dominance in determining which works should be taught in the universities and later included in the canon. Although Walker has made long strides in the literary world since 1973, it might be useful to remember that this victory has not come easily and that the woman writer’s fear of rejection is always there, especially now when we are about to enter a new phase of writing in cyber space, dominated by Bill Gates and his, so to speak, all male crew. Back to square one?

Postscript:
In January 2004 I received an e-mail from one of the three students who were responsible for the making of the sign at Unity House at Antioch College. He related that the sign was made in Dayton and that the painter made the spelling mistake and wanted money, which the students at that time did not have, to have it corrected. Thinking that it would go unnoticed, they put it up nonetheless. He goes on to say: "I remember saying at the time that I would change it when someone complained or when we had a little money. Obviously we later were given enough money to have changed it, but it continued on as our little joke. When we decided to close down Unity House we had a bonfire and burned the sign. It took almost thirty years (and destruction of the sign) for someone to complain about the spelling!"

Moral: Never jump to conclusions! Hypotheses need to be tested time and again!



Useful links:
Anniina Jokinen's  Alice Walker Page, probably the best page available on Walker.
David White:  "Everyday Use". Defining African-American Heritage
Sam Whitsitt: "In Spite of It All": A Reading of Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"
Johannes Timpe: "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker
Alice Walker, Voices from the Gaps.
Quilts and Art in "Everyday Use".
"Everyday Use" from Wikipedia
Alice Walker: Banned, about California censorship on "Roselily", the National exam short story for the English II course in Norwegian high schools in May 1997.
An essay on "Roselily" made by Ragnhild Nyhagen, one of my high school students in 1997.

Home  | Top of the page | Who writes this article? | Essay on "Tony's Story" by Leslie Marmon Silko
Copyright © 1997-2014 Helga Hoel, e-mail address. This page has per May 12, 2014  had 360 787 visitors.