The Emphasis on Embracing One’s Heritage Through Call & Response

The novel Call and Response by Patricia Liggins Hill (the general editor) is an extensive anthology of influential pieces of African American literature. These works of literature strictly emphasize the significance of African American history by implementing cultural aesthetics that were frequently seen throughout the experience of slavery in America. The literature itself includes a variety of diverse formats, such as poetry, essays, speeches, sermons, journals, and spiritual song lyrics. The structure or governing aesthetic of Call and Response relies heavily on the meaning and importance of heritage. In addition, the structure of various works throughout Hill’s novel also displays an extraordinary amount of symbolism, representing both pride and struggle. 

One of the most influential works displayed in Call and Response is “Everyday Use” written by Alice Walker. The work starts off with Mama anxiously awaiting her daughter Dee’s arrival alongside her other daughter Maggie. Unlike Mama and Maggie, Dee was able to escape her impoverished life and instead go to school in Augusta. When Dee returns, she looks completely different, talks differently, and even goes by a new name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo to protest being named after the people who have oppressed her. However, Dee comes home with a secret agenda, which is that she wishes to obtain the family quilts kept by her mother. The quilts were made by Dee’s mother, grandmother, and aunt. They not only have great historical value but cultural significance as well. Dee argues with her mother and claims the quilts would be better kept in her care since Maggie won’t appreciate their unique value and isn’t intelligent enough to properly preserve them. Overall, this work connects to the powerful aesthetic Call and Response attempts to display to its readers, which is the importance of heritage. The audience begins to understand the significance of an individual’s heritage once Dee enters the story. After becoming distraught after concluding that her family’s history deals with the concept of oppression rather than perseverance. Due to this oppression, Dee has made it clear that she desires to reject her own heritage, and instead take on a new one, failing to see the importance her current culture holds. For instance, Dee stated “‘She’s dead,’ Wangero said. ‘I couldn’ bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.’”  (Walker, page 1722) From this excerpt Dee makes the reader pose the question to themselves, can the concept of heritage be considered alive or dead? Can it live on for eternity or is it someday forgotten? Specifically, Dee views her African heritage as dead, or a thing of the past and instead of embracing it rejects it for one seen as more favorable. Furthermore, this poem specifically privileges not “high” culture but the cultural production of normal, everyday people. Walker does this by writing a short story about an extremely relatable family, where sibling rivalry is made to seem common and the celebration of African African culture is valued.

Additionally, “Everyday Use” also brings up an intriguing question of whether or not intelligence or education plays a role in appreciating one’s heritage. Dee claims that she would get more use out of having the quilt instead of her sister since she is educated and can therefore appreciate their cultural value more. However, I strongly disagree with Dee’s point of view on the controversial subject and instead, I would argue that education has no correlation to acknowledging heritage. Personally, I have a high school education and am planning on getting my master’s in education in approximately 2 years. However, my older brother decided not to attend college and instead go straight to the workforce right out of high school. However, just because I have received more formal education than my eldest brother does not mean that I can appreciate our Russian heritage more than he is able to. Appreciating your heritage has nothing to do with your intelligence or education, but rather how you embrace the values bestowed upon you by your cultures. This includes participating in special activities or traditions that have a special meaning to you and your ancestors. Therefore, Dee does not deserve the quilt or can appreciate its value more than her sister just because she had the special privilege of receiving an education. Author Alice Walker sends this message to the reader by successfully implementing a cultural aesthetic into her work that stresses the overall significance of heritage.

Furthermore, more instances of cultural aesthetics being prominently displayed throughout Call and Response is in Nikki Giovanni’s poem titled “Ego-Tripping.” The poem is a beautiful sentiment that is intended to shed light and commemorate African American women and their heritage. Giovanni desires not only the audience to know, but African American women themselves, that their extraordinary accomplishments will not be forgotten nor go without recognition. “Ego-Tripping” takes us through the speaker’s life, starting with her birth in the congo line and going through some of her numerous accomplishments such as traveling over the Sahara Desert. Giovanni ends her poem by acknowledging African American women everywhere by saying “I am so perfect, so divine, so ethereal so surreal / I cannot be comprehended / except by permission / I mean…I…can fly / like a bird in the sky…” (Giovanni, page 1560) These empowering lines Giovanni leaves the reader with are meant to celebrate the struggles of not only the everyday woman but the struggles overcome throughout African African history. She desires to remind the reader that although you may face struggles, your heritage and strength as a black woman will guide you in persevering even the most incomprehensible of misfortunes. She reminds her readers that heritage is responsible for bringing us up and making us the strong women that we are today. Similar to “Everyday Use,” this poem specifically privileges not “high” culture but the cultural production of normal, everyday people. Giovanni does just that by making her work extremely relatable to most women and those of African African descent. I personally resonate heavily with Giovanni’s poem and strongly agree that an individual’s heritage plays a strong role in their ability to overcome and become empowered. My heritage as a Russian Jewish woman reminds me every day that I have something to be proud of and regardless of how much I celebrate my heritage, it should always be acknowledged. Therefore the work Call and Response edited by Patricia Liggins Hill does an excellent job in employing a cultural aesthetic for its readers. The major themes of empowerment and self-discovery are used to create this cultural aesthetic and persuade readers to recognize their own roots as well. Hill successfully does this by including powerful works of literature by well-known authors such as Allice Walker and Nikki Giovanni. Both Walker and Giovanni stress the importance of heritage in their work and force readers to ask themselves what role heritage plays in their individual lives. Both authors remind the audience that their roots and heritage is always something that needs to be embraced, never to be ashamed of or hidden.

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