Alice Walker and James Baldwin are two of America's most prominent African-American writers. Both have addressed the question of how one "becomes" African-American, focusing on issues of how an oppressed minority group and its members achieve a sense of personal identity that includes recognition of a heritage of discrimination and slavery and their "place" in contemporary American society. This was one of the themes present in Walker's short story, "Everyday Use," and Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues."
Walker (2000, p. 1422) describes a woman with two very different daughters. Dee is the educated older sister who wanted nice things and who "at sixteen had a style of her own: and knew what style was." Maggie, the younger sister who has remained with her mother in a rural shack with a dirt yard, was badly burned as a child in a house the family used to life in. Maggie "knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by" (Walker, 2000, p. 1422).
In this short story, Dee returns to visit her mother and sister after having adopted a new name and after becoming involved with a man who appears to be a Black Muslim or at least a far more radical African-American than Dee's family. Dee rejects her name despite the fact that it is a name that has been in her mother's family for years. Adopting a new name and a new attitude toward life, Dee wants to reclaim items from her family's past such as a butter dish, a churn, and a pair of hand-pieced quilts composed of bits of fabric worn by her ancestors.
For Dee, "becoming" African-American means that she must reclaim her heritage. At the same time, she rejects her mother and sister and says "it's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it" (Walker, 2000, p. 1426). The quilts made by Mama's ancestor may be literally priceless as Dee believes them to be. They are equally priceless to Maggie, who nevertheless affirms ...