Childhood is glorified because it is a time free of trouble characterized by innocence and potential. It is because of this innocence that children are so impressionable. Childhood is the time when children learn their heritage, the customs and history of their family. For Dee Johnson, in Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use,” childhood is neither carefree nor innocent. Dee was born in the Deep South to a poor rural African American family that had no hopes of improving their standard of living. Dee however, was an intelligent and beautiful, and most of all ambitious, little girl. She recognized her potential and sought to improve her life through knowledge, however, this isn’t entirely beneficial. While Dee’s childhood pursuit of education gains her a higher socioeconomic status later in life, in the process, she never forms a complete sense of identity.
As a child, Dee’s sole thought was escaping her class. Dee regretted the impoverished state of her family, wanting “nice things” (Walker 419) like new dresses and shoes. She was constantly reminded of her family’s financial status while growing up. They lived in a small house, lacking “real windows, just some holes cut in the sides…with rawhide holding the shutters up on the outside” (419). Her family could hardly afford to send Dee to school. Dee’s mother had to “raise the money” with the church in order to give her an education (419). She saw education as a means of escaping her socioeconomic class and dedicated her childhood to becoming knowledgeable and cultured, “determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts” (419). Dee was very driven and no doubt her environment and living conditions were eternal reminders and inspiration to work toward a better life. Her single minded resolve toward improving her standing in life paid off in the end, but she had little time for anything else along the way. Maggie discusses Dee with her mother before Dee’s arrival wondering if “Dee ever [had] any friends” (419). Dee in fact had “a few” people that may not necessarily qualify as friends, but “worshipped her” as she “read to them” (420). Dee had little time for cultivating actual friendships while working on getting an education, but she did try to make the most of what she had, and practiced her reading with her “friends.” For Dee, learning was far more important than being cultivating friendships and she certainty lacked the time to learn about the heritage associated with the class she was trying to leave.
After reaching her goal Dee creates an identity based on her most physical dominant traits, overlooking her heritage. After reaching her goal, Dee embraces the customs of her African ancestors, deciding her ancestry defines her, overlooking her heritage. Her choices are apparent in the way she dresses and speaks. Dee is described wearing a brightly colored dress “so loud it hurts [her mother’s] eyes” (420). The dress is soft and with excess material, worn entirely for aesthetic pleasure rather than functionality, like her mother’s “flannel nightgowns [for] bed and overalls during the day” (420). The difference between the types of clothing is indicative of Dee and her mother’s respective socioeconomic classes. Dee wears her African inspired dresses as a method of self-expression, while her mother wear her nightgowns and overalls because they are practical. When Dee arrives, she says the phrase “Wa-su-zo tean-o!” (420) a greeting from Uganda. Having grown up in the United States, Dee did not pick up the salutation in her hometown, but rather, after she left it. Dee also changes her name in favor of a more African sounding name, “Wangero Leekwanika Kemajo” (421). By changing her name, she ignores her family members and their heritage. Dee’s name has been passed down through the family for generations and can probably be traced “back beyond the Civil War” (421). She rejects her immediate family members, the values and memories passed on from them, in favor of people she shares DNA with.
Dee recognizes the importance of her heritage, but is unsure how she can incorporate it into her identity. Dee wants to take items and use them in her house. She says she “can use the churn to as a center piece for [an] alcove table” and then do something “artistic with [a] dasher” (423). Dee wants to use common items from her childhood in her current house as keepsakes and mementos for her family and her heritage. She wants to put them on display, to show off because she is proud of her heritage. Some quilts that were made by her mother and grandmothers are especially dear to her. They were made by hand with scraps from her Grandma Dee’s dresses, her Grandpa Jarrells’s shirts, and even scraps from her Great Grandpa Ezra’s Civil War uniform. She wants to use them to remember her family’s heritage. Her sister Maggie understands and while the quilts technically belong to her, she offers them to Dee on the account that she can remember “Grandma Dee without the quilts” because she can “always make more” as “it was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught her how to quilt” (424). Maggie is not educated or of a higher social class, like Dee, but she is knows her heritage. She experienced life with her family, unlike Dee. Everything in her childhood home “delighted her” (422). Dee sees these common items quilts that she once thought were “old fashioned” and “out of style” (424), the churn and dasher, the benches her father made when they “[could not] afford to buy chairs,” (422) with new appreciation. When asked what she is going to do with the quilts, Dee answers simply, “Hang them” (424). She wants to display the quilts and household items in her house, as if it were an art gallery. It is her way of honoring and showing respect for these symbols of her heritage. Dee feels the absence of learning her heritage during her childhood in her creation of her identity. Her way of compensating for her missing knowledge is through objects that her family members made. Dee wants to reconnect her heritage, but she is already too late; she never understood her heritage. In her mind establishing a bond with a physical object is superficial, as there was never any personal relation. The notion that she can honor her heritage by putting their works on display conveys Dee’s misunderstanding of her heritage; Dee’s family would rather she use the objects for their intended purpose.
Dee spent the entirety of her youth attempting to escape her socioeconomic class, loosing sight of herself in the process. When she finally reaches her goal, she tries to create an identity based on her heritage, but because she misinterprets her it, she fails. Heritage is something indoctrinated as a child; it can be taught and adopted, as with Dee’s adoption of certain African customs, but it is never authentic Dee lacks heritage partially because she failed to realize the importance of heritage in the formation of identity as a child and partially because she never got an opportunity to learn. While the pursuit of education is a successful motivational factor for improving social standing, that quest can become all consuming causing one to neglect one’s family values.