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.
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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:
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:
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:
Mt. Kenya away
over pinappled hills
A book of poems
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,
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:
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 :
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:
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 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!