Up the stairs, tucked in the corner, and buried beneath past memories printed on paper and old phone bills is my family’s treasure chest. Contrasted against the hallways eggshell walls, the chest proudly stands adorning it’s chipped, cartoon puke paint which may be an eye sore to anyone else but my family who only sees a priceless family heirloom. Because what is beneath those ugly walls are hundreds of photos, drawings, baby clothes, and souvenoirs that all weave together to tell a tale of who my family is, even if I wasn’t there to see it. And when I open this treasure chest, and am greeted by an assault of cigarettes only my great grandmother could have smoked I am reminded of who I am today because of where I come from. In the stories, Everyday Use and What You Pawn I Will Redeem, the authors Alice Walker and Sherman Alexie both effectively warn readers of the dangers of ignorance and the significance of heritage by using stark characterization, vivid symbols, and powerful epiphanies to illustrate harmful social constructs rooted within each character and more importantly ourselves.
In Everyday Use, the nameless narrator invites us to step into her shoes as a mother and see how different her two daughters have grown from the humble beginnings they have originated. While Dee is beautiful, well-educated, confident, bold, and condescending, Maggie is the exact opposite. Juxtaposed against her sister’s brazen personality and clothes, Maggie is young, timid, ugly, scarred, barely literate, and discouraged by life. By comprising Maggie of undesirable qualities, the author intentionally makes our protagonist someone who invokes empathy as we are able to easily root for Maggie. And when she is described as a “lame… dog… run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car,”(482) we are forced to contemplate how a young woman like Maggie, whose literacy proves her potential, could already be beaten down by life. The author intentionally does not reveal where Maggie’s scars come from as they symbolize past trauma suffered by African Americans. While Dee urges Maggie to forget about the past and make something of herself she is blind to the lasting effects of these scars which persist through generations. When our bodies are hurt beyond repair we grow scars. Scars are violent, heartbreaking, ugly and most importantly beg to be seen and acknowledged. But just like her name, Dee denies Maggie of the recognition her trauma deserves and thus Maggie nor anyone can truly move on as scars may be covered but can never heal.
Just as Maggie bears her scars, Jackson Jackson in “What You Pawn I Will Redeem’ bears his own which traces farther than his own origins in Spokane, Washington. In the beginning of the story, Jackson belittles himself as simply an alchoholic and a homeless man. Although the author later reveals the many positive qualities the protagonist has, such as education and wit, we are forced to see that all of these traits are futile to a society that just like Jackson will only see a homeless alchoholic. In parallel to Walker, Alexie abstains from giving a cause for these imperfections, as the reader is again prompted to examine if these problems run deeper than just Jackson’s individual story. The author even goes as far to conspicuosly state that Jackson is the “After Columbus Arrived Indian... living proof of the horrible damage that colonialism has done to us Skins,”(10). Just as Maggie is stagnant due to existing societal constructs, Jackson is stuck living his life as a symbol of the consequences of America’s pillaging and more importantly the dangers of unawareness. His alchoholism and homelessness represent his own scars which condemn him to a “terrible fate of a noble savage (9). A fate destined through racism and greed that has caused horrendous events such as the Trail of Tears and continues to harm and oppress generations to come by a society that blinds itself to the lasting scars that have endured through their own ignorance.
In “Everyday Use” the main conflict is driven by which sister deserves the quilt that has been forged from their past ancestors and their clothes. By placing each sister at opposite ends of the fighting ring, we are presented with two possible paths and more importantly two opposite views of heritage. Dee asserts that the quilt should be placed in a musuem where it can be displayed and looked at but never used or really acknowledged. But while Dee sees the quilt as a work of art that’s purpose is to be displayed for the elitist of society, Maggie is able to recognize that her family’s quilt represents far more than a pretty object. She sees her grandmother and grandmother’s grandmother and not only their clothes but the lives they fought to live in those garments and the life she has because of it. And although Maggie understands these quilts and her heritage are made to be used and appreciated each and every day she also posseses the knowledge that she doesn’t need those quilts at all to understand the meaning of heritage. To know that we cannot shield ourselves from the triumphs and massacres of our history but rather must embrace our past despite it’s ugliness.The author presents the reader with two paths: a life guided by blindness leaving you in the dark or one where everyday you are brought back into the light.
When Jackson stumbles upon his grandmother’s lost regalia in the pawn shop, this call to action sets in motion a quest that will unknowingly change the narrator forever. As Jackson meets new people and shares his stories while listening to others, the author shows us the importance of storytelling but also listening. By hearing these joyous, heartbreaking, triumphant, and hilarious stories from people of all different backgrounds we are not only reminded of the shared humanity that lives in all of us but the beautifully unique details about ourselves that make our stories vital to tell. The yellow bead on the regalia represents an ugly truth that mars each story we tell. But yet just like each tragedy that marks our history, this yellow bead cannot be ignored or shunned as it’s place on the regalia is what redeems Jackson in the end. Through each story that is recited and consumed, Jackson is able to claim a part of his heritage he never knew he lost. In the end, what has more importantly been gained from this noble quest was not his grandmother’s regalia but the community that was built from just one man who gave a little bit of himself to everyone whom he met, even if there was nothing left to give, while trying to reclaim a small part of himself that maybe each Native American had also lost. Once Jackson has learned the value of the community that has always existed in Seattle and America, Jackson is able to finally redeem what had been stolen from him. But just as Maggie does not need her family’s quilt to feel her ancestor’s will coarsing through her blood, Jackson finally doesn’t need the regalia to feel the presence of his heritage that lives within himself and the people and stories he has gained along the way.
However what is more importantly learned through the readers shared jubilation of our protagonist’s victories and realizations is what we take away from our own lives from these timeless and sacred texts. Although it is easy to distance ourselves from these obvious evils pointed out in these tales, each author asks of us to contemplate our role in history and more significantly, what action we can take to correct the athe wrongs our society has ignored. In Everyday Use”, the author gives our protagonist and narrator a happy ending as both are give a peace from the epiphanies that have been learned. But as Dee slides her sunglasses on and embarks back into the darkness to find an identity she may never know, we are asked to question our own blindness. Are we recognizing our heritage, scars or all, or attempting to cover a history that cannot be shunned? In contrast, the ending of “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” begs us to invest in just a little kindness and maybe hope in a humanity that our protagonists have both lost hope in. To lend an ear to a few strangers you see on the docks or to break bread and feast even when you have nothing left to give. In the end, both stories gives us their own twisted versions of hope, of a world that may still have tragedy, scars, rags, and misplaced orange beads but ultimately leaves you with a breathtaking piece of history that above all else shows truth and honor.