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...