Race structures the social and economic conditions of characters’ daily lives in “Everyday Use.” From the first few paragraphs, Walker makes it clear that the oppression of African-Americans is built into the society of the Deep South, where Mama and Maggie live. This injustice manifests itself in a multitude of ways, ranging from Mama’s inability to look “a strange white man in the eye” to her mentions of racialized violence, like the time when “the white folks” poisoned her neighbor’s herd of cattle.
While Mama has a keen way of taking note of the racism she experiences, she also seems unable to combat it, and simply accepts its effects as inevitable. For example, after Mama mentions that she did not go to school after the second grade, she states that “in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.” Mama implies that she, unlike Dee, was not taught to criticize or struggle against her community’s racial conditions. Moreover, when Mama mentions encountering racism, she talks about it as a precondition of her story, a part of the structure of her life rather than a changeable content of it. When Mama talks about her neighbor’s cows being poisoned, the racist violence of this anecdote is not the point of the story— it is part of the background information. To Mama, racism is an unfortunate reality, a part of the unchangeable structure of her life.
Dee acts as a foil (a character whose qualities contrast with and therefore highlight another character’s qualities) to Mama in this respect. Dee, unlike Mama, actively challenges the racial status quo, refusing to accept it as inevitable. Unlike Mama, who cannot even imagine herself “looking a strange white man in the eye,” Dee “would always look anyone in the eye.” Dee’s gaze undermines the expectation in her community that African-Americans should behave with deference towards white people. Moreover, Dee attempts to forge a new, African identity for herself as “Wangero,” stating that the name “Dee” attaches her to a history of oppression she would rather reject.
But despite Dee’s attempts to transcend the racial expectations of her community and time period, racism, and the family’s differing ways of reacting to it, still manages to sour the family’s bonds, especially Mama and Dee’s. Even in Mama’s fantasy of reconciliation with Dee at the story’s opening, differing attitudes towards race dispel the possibility of reunion. When Mama daydreams about going on the Johnny Carson TV show with Dee, she imagines them hugging and pictures herself “the way [her] daughter would want [her] to be,” with a “quick and witty tongue” that Johnny Carson can barely keep up with. This image, however, devolves when Mama thinks “who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?” Mama’s internalized racism and life of hardship makes her unable to be someone Dee would presumably be proud of, and so unable to truly reconcile with Dee. Through this broken fantasy, Walker articulates how racism destroys relationships not only between white people and African-Americans, but also between African-Americans themselves.
The legacy of racism also drives Dee away from not just Mama, but her whole family history. Dee believes that in order to liberate herself from racial injustice, she must also distance herself from the history of slavery and African-American oppression—a history closely tied to her family’s story. For example, when Dee rejects her given name for an African one, she says it is because, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” Dee believes that she must reject her given name in order reject its history of oppression. Unfortunately, as Mama points out, Dee is actually named after her beloved aunt Dicie. Dee’s attempt to reject the past means also rejecting her ancestors who lived in it. Essentially, Dee is forced to choose between rejecting the history of racial oppression and keeping her personal identity and familial connections. Walker uses Dee to exemplify a difficulty that not just she, but African-Americans in general might face: untangling contemporary identity from a history of slavery and racism. “Everyday Use” understands the legacy of racism as difficult to disrupt, in part because this legacy troublingly links African-American identity and history with oppression.
Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice ThemeTracker
Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice Quotes in Everyday Use
Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye.
I never had an education myself. After second grade the school closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.
‘What happened to Dee?’ I wanted to know.
‘She’s dead,’ Wangero said. ‘I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.’