Seed Shape: Looking Back

The origin of words is something that is studied extensively through history and as we move further away from them they can sometimes regain their meaning or completely lose them as they age. Like words the idea of one’s own origin can be either realized or left behind as they move through the acts of their life. The origin of ones can be looked at like a seed shape. A seed shape being the beginning of something. That beginning can be thought to be either when a person is born or the life a person leads before beginning a new life. The course concept of culture and one’s background heavily play into some of the stories we read and what one is leaving behind or regaining plays into its foundation. Two pieces of work that go into these kinds of topics would be, “Everyday Use,” by Alice Walker and, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,” by Frederick Douglass. When observing “Everyday Use,”  the character Dee can be seen as someone who struggles with her cultural identity as she at first resolves to leave it behind before returning to it later in life. In the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,” we witness the retelling of a life that Douglass left behind.

In “Everyday Use,” Dee lives among her family and grows a dislike for the culture she grew up around, eventually leaving home and not returning for multiple years. Dee in her earlier year’s shows a distaste for the life she was currently living as can be seen when her mother made the comment towards her, “Why don’t you do a dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much,” (Walker, p.g, 1798). The meaning of these words can be looked at as Dee hating where she came from. The house is almost a representation of a life she doesn’t think suits her and that she wants. Everything Dee represents is so far removed from the humble upbringings that encompassed her childhood, to the nice clothing she demanded for her graduation, to the way she treats her sister as if she are lesser than her. When talking to her sister Maggie she talks as if she can’t understand larger concepts. “”Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she cried. “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”” (Walker, p.g, 1800). Maggie is far more rooted in the cultural upbring that surrounds the quilts that are to be passed down in her family but because they can be used as memorabilia Dee doesn’t seem to understand why they’d ever be used. I’ll further delve into what Dee’s return to culture looks like in the next paragraph but it’s important to note that her idea of culture turns into someone who is on the outside looking in. Even as someone who has personal connections to the history she’s looking at she doesn’t feel any true connection to it. 

In the text Dee is painted as someone who wants nothing to do with her upbringing before she eventually returns to the home she had once lived in. Once returning home she seems to be enthralled with its whole existence. “She stoops down quickly and snaps off picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included,” (Walker, p.g. 1799). The current house that Dee is taking a picture of is almost an exact replica of the previous house that she had hated so much. One could question why Dee would bother including the house when it should remind her of something she never particularly liked. Dee’s return in a way symbolizes her return to origin, or the seed shape. The house, the inhabitants, and what’s inside of it represent her childhood and the culture surrounding it. “”This churn top is what I need”,” “”Mama,” Wangero said sweet as a bird. “Can I have these old quilts?”,” (Walker, p.g. 1800 & 1801). Dee remembers things about her childhood, but actively tried to remove aspects of it from her life. When previously offered the quilts Dee had turned them down, saying they were out of style. Dee’s interest in her background is newly founded and while reconnecting with one’s cultural heritage should be celebrated, Dee wants to use it as some sort of display. “Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. “You just will not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts!” “Well,” I said, stumped, “what would you do with them?” “Hang them,” she said. As if that was the only thing you could do with quilts,” (Walker, p.g. 1800). When observing Dee’s point of view one could make an argument that she just wants to preserve the quilts as a form of respect but based on how the other characters receive the idea that seems to be out of the norm for their culture. Dee likes the aesthetic of her culture and doesn’t quite understand the inner workings of it. She’s an outsider in every sense of the word that is trying to reconnect but doesn’t seem to want to learn from those who she deems lesser than her.

When looking into the, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave,” one can gleam a very different perspective of what looking back at one’s background can look like. Douglass was someone who had grown up in and thoroughly experienced the ins and outs of slavery but had escaped it and lived to tell his story. Douglass however when recounting his experience doesn’t do it to reconnect with his background but to help others understand the hardships he had to endure while trying to help other people who were enslaved escape. “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night,” (Douglass, p.g. 276). Douglass appeals to the heart’s of specifically white women with husbands in power to try and make change in the times he was living in. It was all that he could do when with the color of his skin he was seen as half a person.With a background like Douglass’s, it’d be hard pressed to find a person who would want to return to it, even if it’s just in memories. Many would argue that Douglass has every right to move on from his background and pretend like it doesn’t exist and yet he doesn’t. Douglass recounts every aspect of his life, forfeiting some information as he isn’t in a privileged position to share the full narrative. To Douglass it might have been seen as his responsibility to share his story in order to help free his people and so he relieved it all. In his writing he tends to give a lot of information, so much that you may miss important details. “ I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a northeast course from North Point. I will do the same;” (Douglass, p.g. 299). In his writing he takes risks in giving exact instructions for how to escape and yet he takes that risk because he knows that it must be done in order to help others.

Looking back at one’s background and culture is an individual choice that varies from person to person and one may ask why the reason someone does it at all matters. Looking back helps us grow and understand aspects of ourselves, others, and the world around us that we may not have fully grasped before. Doing so for the wrong reasons can damage what we cherish in the end though. With Dee it seems like she ends up hurting others within the narrative with how she sees her heritage as a display piece. She can’t see past how she views her culture and refuses to learn from the people who would most likely know more than her as it doesn’t fit her current life to actually learn properly. Douglass on the other hand does it for very selfless reasons that one may praise him for. There aren’t only two ways to go about looking back at someone’s culture and background but when doing so it’s important to think about why it’s being done.

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