In Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” a Native American finds himself going on a quest to attain his grandmother’s Regalia. In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” a college educated girl visits her sister and mother only to find her education has created a divide between herself and her family. Both stories demonstrate the importance of heritage and overcoming blindness through the use of symbolism, characterization, and irony that leads to epiphany.
In the story “Everyday Use” the importance of heritage is displayed through the two sisters Dee (Wangero) and Maggie. Dee and Maggie have a great disparity in the degree by which they value their heritage. Dee is confident, educated, beautiful and has a lot going for her, except she has a disconnect to her family. The disconnect she has is all that is important about her because that is all she is meant to represent. Maggie has a lack of confidence, is more adept at manual labor, and is marked by scars on her body that symbolize her connection to her enslaved ancestors. Maggie is characterized as the sister who values her family heritage. Maggie is the character we are meant to sympathize with because Walker is expressing the importance of family heritage. At the end of “Everyday Use” an aspect of Dee is revealed when Mama says, “What don’t I understand?” and Dee replies saying “Your heritage.”, referring to their African heritage (8). Dee (Wangero) differs from Maggie because she feels enlightened by her education and thinks her heritage comes from Africa; however she is really in the dark because heritage is where we live. Maggie, however, has a greater connection to the culture her ancestors formed during oppression in America and not her African culture. Maggie emerges victorious in the end because she gets to keep her Mother’s quilts. This choice is made because Maggie is characterized as respecting and valuing her mother’s heritage and will continue to add to the quilts. Walker uses Maggie and Dee to represent opposing outlooks on family heritage and show that one outlook is victorious over the other.
There are no opposing outlooks on family in “What You Pawn I will Redeem,” but rather a lost heritage is embodied through the character Jackson Jackson. Jackson lost touch with his family’s past. This is a part of what he represents. In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” Jackson introduces himself by explaining, “I am a Spokane Indian Boy, an Interior Salish” (1). Jackson shows his knowledge of his Native American culture, but is disconnected from his family and their individual culture. His name is significant because he lacks a proper last name; it is the same as his first name, which signifies how he has lost a connection to family. Following his Native American culture has only led him to homelessness, alcoholism, a lack of trustworthy friends, and more importantly family. When he becomes reconnected with his family, through the Regalia, however he feels complete. The completeness he feels when he is reconnected with the Regalia signifies the importance of family in one’s life. Jackson appeared victorious in the end because he reclaims a piece of family history. By “winning” this challenge there is a positive connotation associated with being in touch with family heritage. Jackson is important because he is meant to be someone who is lost but regains family heritage.
Walker uses Mama’s quilts to symbolize the family heritage. The quilts are described as having “Scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jattell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece […] from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he had worn in the Civil War.” (6). The quilts therefore have the clothing of ancestors sewn into the fabric. The importance of the quilts to Mama reflects the importance of her own heritage, a heritage that does not date back to Africa, but to slavery and the Civil War, from events and culture that make her who she is in America. The blankets have been passed down generation to generation, with each generation contributing a portion. Arguing over the quilts is the same as arguing over the fate of history. The quilts are the only thing they have to connect with their past. Whatever happens to the quilts will determine if their is a link to their past, a part of time that contributes so much to who they are, and a link to the past for future generations to come. The quilts will continue to exist for their intended purpose because Maggie, not Dee, will keep them, thus symbolizing family heritage and its importance.
The symbol for the importance of family heritage in “What You Pawn I will Redeem” is Grandma’s Regalia. The Regalia is something of extreme importance to Jackson Jackson’s Grandma because it is a sign of status. According to the text in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” this Native American Regalia has “all the same color feathers and beads that my family sewed into our Powwow Regalia.” (2). Native American Regalias are very complex and are woven to reflect certain values or qualities of the family. The aspects of the Regalia specific to his family show it symbolizes Jackson’s direct lineage. Jackson knew it was an important piece of his family history. The Regalia included a yellow bead under the armpit that was unique to his family and was put on all of their Regalias. The yellow bead itself represents imperfections, but also it represents something that is unique to his family. Jackson equates to the yellow bead because like the bead he has many imperfections like his state of homelessness and his problems with alcohol. The Regalia serves as a symbol of the family heritage Jackson must rediscover.
Blindness inhibits Dee from seeing the truth in “Everyday Use.” After Dee loses the battle for the quilts, she leaves her mother and sister, and “She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and chin. Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses.” (8) The sunglasses illustrate the blindness Dee never overcomes. There is irony when Dee takes the quilts and makes it known that “ They already belonged to her.” (6). Dee’s assumed ownership shows how she felt deserving of the quilts. Dee however does not win the quilts, but rather an unexpected Maggie does, creating an ironic situation because Dee had laid claim to them. Regardless of the situation, Dee continues to wear her sunglasses and be blind to what is important. Maggie, however, has full vision. The irony of the situation causes Maggie to come to a realization, saying, “Maggie smiled; maybe at the sunglasses,” thus showing that Maggie laughs at Dee’s ignorance as Maggie sees the light.
Besides family values, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” illustrates the importance of overcoming blindness through irony. Jackson Jackson thinks what he desires and must obtain is money. The quest for money only rewards him with more alcohol and loneliness. Jackson is blind to his true desire. In the end the pawnbroker says, “‘ I don’t want your money.’” (15). This takes Jackson by surprise because he expected to have to win the Regalia to feel complete. Instead it is given to him for free. Ironically, then, he never had to go on his quest to pay for the Regalia. However, the irony of the situation leads him to realize that it was his community and heritage that make him complete, not material possessions. In “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” Jackson explains “They all watched me dance with my grandmother. I was my grandmother, dancing.” (15) By engaging in dance, Jackson is happy, because he has been cured of his blindness and comes to see what is truly important to him, to be a part of a community stretching back generations.
Both stories glorify a connection with family. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” and “Everyday Use” use characterization to convey this point, as well as the use of symbols that signify family heritage, and irony. Today, it is just as important to understand one’s background. In the United States people are becoming more distant from their ancestral home with each generation. People do not have to feel connected with their ancestral home as long as they are connected with their families recent history because it is important to know how we got to the place where we are now. Personally I have felt disconnected with my parents because I am going through my “teenager phase.” Recently, however, I have made a conscious effort to maintain our relationship because I have come to realize the importance of family, and I am grateful to learn this lesson from powerful stories that remind us of what is important.