Deviance in culture and tradition in “Everyday Use”

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Part 1: They Say

            In the story ‘Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, the reader witnesses a disassociation between a mother and daughter. The story portrays the lives of an African-American family which is divided by heritage and tradition. The narrator of the story is a mother that is stuck in the past and holds her family culture strongly. On the other hand, Dee is a daughter who is quick-witted and embraces the modern life unlike her sister and her mother. According to various sources, Dee is a deviant from her family’s heritage who has embraced the new life in exchange of her traditions. Dee creates a completely new identity to the point of altering her name as an attempt of denouncing her old culture that was created by the slave masters and having one that attaches her to her African identity. However, critics state that Dee’s new identity is phony and based on pretense and hypocrisy. Dee does not understand the African culture that she claims to have accepted as part of her new self. The writer of the story shows Dee’s negative feelings towards her own heritage and lifestyle by the negative means in which she treats her family. She uses education as a means of portraying her modernity but in the actual sense Dee’s uses her intellectualism as a means of oppressing people of her own culture. According to research, Walker’s portrayal of deviation from heritage, culture and tradition through Dee is one that is hypocritical and used as a means to oppress the people around her.

            Walker demonstrates the deviation from heritage and tradition through the Dee’s change in identity. In the story, Dee comes back home to her family with not only a husband but also a new African name which she uses as a sign of her African heritage. According to Hoel (1999), Dee fails to understand that her original name is more of her heritage than the African name that she has created for herself. Hoel explains that Dee’s name goes back several generations and has been used by her ancestors living in America. The name holds significant value as it was her grandmother’s name and others before her which makes it a part of their family heritage. The African name that Dee has chosen, is one that does not hold any value as it does not have a lot of history like her original name. Hoel goes further by explaining that Dee’s embracement of her African culture is false as the names do not make any sense. The titles that Dee uses to refer to herself are from different tribes in Africa. For example, Wangero is closely linked to the Kikuyu name ‘Wanjiru’ which is a tribe in Kenya while Leewanika is a name that belongs to the people of Malawi (Hoel 37). Therefore, Dee has quickly attempted to copy a culture that she does not even understand while escaping her own. Dee also develops a new fashion sense that represents the African culture. According to Hoel, the dress that Dee wears has features that belong to different regions in Africa that are not even related. The long, flowing nature of the dress belongs to the West African culture while the colorful nature is common with the people of Tanzania. Dee has left behind her family heritage that she has grown up with her entire life to get a new identity that she hardly understands. Hoel believes that Dee’s new identity is fake and filled with ignorance and confusion of cultures.

            Dee’s deviation of culture is demonstrated by her ability to speak an African language and acquiring educational knowledge. In the story, Dee’s family is not educated and her sister has difficulty reading. The family shows comfort in their simple life but Dee is not satisfied with the basic lifestyle and uses education to separate herself from her mother and sister. Dee’s ability to read and learning of languages not only make her stand out from her family but give her an ability to oppress others (Tuten 2010).  Tuten states that Dee demonstrates how the privilege of having knowledge can be helpful but also destructive. In terms of being useful, having knowledge gives Dee a voice to express her voice and thoughts in a clear manner. However, she uses it to make the people around look like idiots while increasing her level of superiority. She constantly reads towards them while forcing vocabularies and ideas without her family’s consent. Tuten explains that Dee does not use her knowledge to improve the lives of her community but instead uses it as a tool for control and isolating herself from others. Dee does not care that her family do not have interest in education and are in fact very comfortable with their lifestyle.

            However, other authors hold a different perspective on Dee’s creation of a new identity and alienation from her culture and traditions. According to Farrell (1998), Dee’s different perspective in terms of culture and tradition, offers African Americans a better method of building their society than the suggestions offered by her mother. Farrell explains that Dee’s mother and Maggie offer a much more complacent perspective about their lives that offers no value of creating improved conditions for their community. On the other hand, Dee uses her knowledge that she has acquired through education to offer an opinion on improving her family’s lives and others from her community. Another source that supports Farrell’s positive opinion about Dee’s different style of thought is Sarnowski (2012). Sarnowski believes that although Dee appears to lack an understanding of her mother and sister’s perspective about their family heritage, Dee is trying to help the family fit into the changing world. Lenzerini (2011) states that culture is supposed to be adaptable to an ever-changing world. Cultures that thrive are those that look for means and ways of embracing new knowledge to make them suitable in a modernizing world. However, other sources still hold the belief that Dee’s portrayal of having a new identity and culture for African Americans is hypocritical because she refuses her very own African American heritage (Cowart 1996). The quilts that Dee desires to use for cultural display are the same one she declined several years earlier, demonstrating a sense of falsehood in her desire to adopt a new African identity.

            In conclusion, based on the analysis of various sources, Walker’s story demonstrates deviance from heritage, tradition, and culture which can be seen through Dee. Some critics believe Dee uses her knowledge and education to oppress the people around such as when she would force beliefs and vocabularies on her family. Although some sources think that Dee is showing her family a new path to live, the majority seem to believe that her new identity is hypocritical. Dee lacks sufficient knowledge of the African culture and only uses it to appear modern and patriotic to her roots.

Part 2: I say

            In Alice Walker’s story, “Everyday Use,”cultural deviance is seen and witnessed especially through Dee, the daughter of the narrator. Dee is understood to embrace different ideas such as education and a stronger desire for success than any of her family members. A large number of the story’s critics see Dee’s differentiation in heritage and culture as a poor choice and hypocritical. Dee is recognized by her naysayers as an individual that mostly uses her new identity such as a new name and fashion style as a means of making herself appear superior to her family but lacks adequate knowledge of the African culture she has embraced. In my perspective, Dee can be seen as a self-absorbed individual that enjoys being held on a peddle stool but is not the villain that a lot of sources claim her to be. Dee cannot understand her family’s side on why they embrace a comfortable lifestyle, but it can also be seen as a desire to improve their lives. Although I do not entirely agree with those that support Dee’s antics and her creation of a new identity, I also do not side with those that see Dee only as a self-serving person that creates an original image and develops a different cultural sense to appear superior. I believe both sides hold essential points about Dee’s deviation from her culture that are equally true. Dee holds genuine desire to see her family and community improve from the situation they live in and take advantage of the modern American society. The reason she is seen as hypocritical is also that her mother acts as the narrator of the story and everything is seen in the mother’s view. Dee uses the embracement of her African identity as a means of compensating the emptiness she had inside her. In my opinion, Dee deviation from her culture and development of a different identity is at times used as a negatively, but she also embraces a different heritage due to internal emptiness and wants to see her family succeed.

            Dee’s creation of a new name and acquirement of an African language attempts to fulfill her internal emptiness. In the story, one can see that Dee was an exceptionally different child compared to her sister, Maggie. The former was fueled by a sense of achievement which the writer demonstrates through her voracious reading. However, Dee’s mother and her sister did not hold a similar sense of ambition. Her family members were comfortable with their lifestyle and held great pride in it. Dee did not have anyone that she could share her high aspirations within her household. Maggie’s perspective is often supported by her mother who also shares a complacent approach to life. In the story, Maggie even questions her mother whether Dee had any friends while growing up. Dee’s lack of solid friendship as a child is an ignored component by a majority of her critics. She did not have anyone that could share similar plans for success or knowledge. Embracing an African identity and refuting the name that goes back for generations in her family are not traits of only a deviant girl but an individual searching for a character that can give her a sense of fulfillment. When Dee watched her house burn with satisfaction, it showed the lack of attachment that she had toward her family heritage. She did not have any reason to show remorse to a home that did not encourage her to pursue her dreams further. Instead of her mother seeing Dee as a threat due to her quick-wit and uncontrolled tongue, the narrator should have taken greater responsibility of making Dee feel accepted by her own family and community. Therefore, Dee uses a new name and an African culture as an escape and attempt to find a sense of fulfillment that she lacked as a child.

            However, I agree that Dee’s use of her knowledge was unproductive and demeaning to those around her. Tuten explains that Dee was able to develop a voice after gaining awareness through education but used to isolate herself (Tuten 125). I agree with Tuten’s sentiment because Dee would have approached educating her family too in a more humane way. As a child, she would read voraciously and impose her ideas on her family members and would retract when they began to understand her content. Dee’s behavior demonstrates an individual that lacked the knowledge of educating those around her. Her tactics were demeaning and were likely to generate ill feelings from her family.

            While reading the story, one has to take into perspective that the narration is done from the perspective of Dee’s mother. Although the opinions shared by the narrator are open and honest, critics have to take into account a degree of bias. For example, one has to question her mother’s sentiments towards Dee reading for them forcefully. The narrator states that Dee placed “knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know” as one of her negative traits. However, one has to question why did she feel Dee was stating meaningless knowledge yet the narrator was reasonably uneducated herself? An individual that does not have an ample amount of education cannot serve as the adequate judge whether the information being given to them is meaningless. Questioning the perspective of the story being through the eyes of the mother is one that is also stated by Farrell. One can somewhat tell that the mother is more attached to Maggie that she is to Dee. Maggie is similar in characteristics to her mother as both individuals enjoy the simplicity of the life they lead. Dee is threatening due to the knowledge that she has acquired and is not afraid to show. Therefore, one has to take into account the critical nature that the narrator is towards Dee.

            Based on my research, Dee’s situation demonstrates the importance of cultural identity in the influence of a child’s wellbeing. Research shows that children who are taught their culture at a young age develop a sense of identity as they grow up (Raman 2006). In the case of Dee, as a child it can be seen she was not taught her family’s heritage and only developed classroom knowledge. Dee lacked a sense of belonging which she sort after by developing African culture and deciding to ignore her own. If she had received better nurturing about her family’s values and traditions while young, there is a possibility Dee would have grown up with a sense of belonging and fulfillment of her heritage.

            In conclusion, both critics and supporters of Dee’s deviation in culture and family traditions hold essential points that I agree with. Dee is seen to use her knowledge in an incorrect manner that appears demeaning to the people around her. However, she also wanted to see her family develop the same understanding that she had to improve their situation. Dee’s desire to embrace a different cultural tradition was because she was void inside and needed a sense of belonging. Critics that see her deviation to a different culture as hypocritical fail to take into account the fulfillment she was able to gain from an African name and identity that she lacked as a child.


Cowart, David. ”Heritage and Deracination in Walker’s ”Everyday Use.“Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1996.

Farrell, Susan. ”Fight vs. flight: A re-evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker’s ”Everyday Use“Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 35, No. 2, 1998, pp. 179-186.

Hoel, Helga. ”Personal Names and Heritage: Alice Walker’s ”Everyday Use,“American Studies in Scandinavia, Vol. 31, No. 1, 1999

Lenzerini, Federico. ”Intangible Cultural Heritage: The Living Culture Of Peoples.“European Journal Of International Law. Vol. 22, No. 1, 2011, pp. 101-120.

Raman, Shanti. ”Cultural Identity and Child Health.” Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, Vol. 52, No. 4, 2006, pp. 231-234,

Sarnowski, Joe. ”Destroying To Save: Idealism And Pragmatism In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” Papers On Language & Literature, Vol. 48, No. 3, 2012, pp. 269-286.

Tuten, Nancy. ”Alice Walker’s ”Everyday Use.” The Explicator, Vol. 51, No. 2, 2010, pp. 125-128,

Walker, Alice. ”Everyday Use.” 1973.

December 12, 2023



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