Identity constitutes an important part of human existence that every human being seeks whether subconsciously or consciously. Cultural identity refers to the cultural background of an individual in terms of one’s ancestors and region of origin. The contemporary world is extremely diverse with people coming from different cultural background. Human beings are predisposed to identify with a particular culture. However due to historical aspects and other factors different cultures have been integrated and cultural identity is more apparent to some people than others. There arises a situation where in most instances the minority group within the diverse culture may experience identity confusion.
Cultural diversity broadens the perspective of people when they learn that other people perceive and do things differently. This is one major advantage that can only be enjoyed when people develop a heightened sense of understanding of cultural issues thereby avoiding confusion. However it becomes easier when one understands their original culture. This was not the case with most black American in the 60s and 70s where they were at cross roads to adapt to the American culture of the majority or try understanding the culture of their ancestors in Africa. This aspect is brought out clearly in two books where the authors illuminate the conflict that exists between mothers and daughters. The two books are: I Stand Here Ironing by Tim Olsen and Everyday Use by Alice Walker. This paper will compare and contrast the mother and daughter relationship in the two books so as to bring about the effects of cultural identity on Black American families. In “I Stand Here Ironing the author uses monologue by a woman who in the beginning of the story informs the reader what she is doing but quickly shifts to narrating about her daughters childhood after she is called upon to meet with school official to discuss about her daughter who is 19 years old. The persona in monologue expresses her predicament due to the effect she had in upbringing her daughter. In “Everyday Use” the author tells of a story of a conflict between a mother and her two daughters. According to White (2001) the mother prefers the more practical values of her younger daughter over the superficial values of the elder daughter although the older daughter is more successful than the younger daughter. Both books have the same time setting during the period around 1960s and 1970s in America. Furthermore both books refer to black Americans. White explains that this was a period when most black Americans were struggling with to establish a cultural identity. There was a group of black Americans that were willing to rediscover their African roots and totally ignore the American culture while another group preferred to adopt a more practical approach that admitted both cultures. The mother daughter relationship is outlined by the author to bring out the conflicts between these two groups.
White explains that Mama in “Everyday Use” describes herself as being tough and seasoned to carry out day to day activities. Mama even compares herself to a man when she says that: “I can kill and clean a hog mercilessly as man. White outlines that her practical description of herself compounded with the fact that she mentions that she learnt up to 2nd grade displays Mama as being practical and having very little reference or consideration of issues regarding abstract aspects such as heritage. However in the same perspective Mama has appreciation and regard for her ancestors. This is clearly outlined by the fact that Mama is able to make fabric from pieces cut from the clothes of her previous ancestors. The author describes this by explaining that:
“In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more
years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny
faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great
Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War… “Some of the pieces,
like those lavender ones, come from old clothes [Grandma Dee’s] mother handed
down to her,” [Mama] said, moving up to touch the quilts. (Walker Pg 412).
The conflict between Mama and her daughter Wangero arises due to their different perceptions they have regarding their cultural identity. Wangero strives to identify with her African culture and completely do away with the American culture. Mama views Wangero as being superficial and impractical. The mother daughter relationship here explains how a single mother can bring up two daughters with different views and perception. Apparently Maggie has taken after her mother’s views and as a result the bond between them is much stronger. Maggie and Wangero are as different from each other as east is different from west. Mama describes Wangero as being bold successfully when she says that she says that:
“Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation
from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old
suit somebody gave me. She was determined to stare down any disaster in
her efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often I fought
off the temptation to shake her. At sixteen she had a style all her own: and
knew what style was.” (Walker, Pg 409).
On the other hand Mama describes Maggie as follows:
“Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some
careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who
is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie
walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet
in shuffle ever since the fire that burned the house to the ground.” (Walker, Pg 409).
Although the two descriptions are different from one another one obvious aspect about Mama is that she knows her daughters very well. She knows their weaknesses and strengths. It is therefore obvious that Mama spent most of her time with her daughters as they were growing up and was able to know how they perceived life differently. On the contrary in the book “I stand Here Ironing” the mother in a monologue explains how she was unable to spend time with her daughter during her childhood and is even adamant to go to school when called upon to discuss her daughter’s problems. This is outlined when she exclaims that:
“Who needs help,”…Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.”
The relationship between the mother and her daughter in this case is one of strangers because the daughter spent her childhood with relatives because the mother was unable to care for her and work at the same time. This is after her husband abandons her. At some point the daughter becomes too sick that she is taken to a convalescence home at least where she can obtain nutritional food and become healthy again. It is apparent that the daughter did not spend enough time with her mother during her childhood and as a result this became a frustration for her. Although the mother yearns for the daughter to open u and speak to her, the daughter is mostly quiet. Perhaps the daughter took it as a sign of rejection when the mother sent her away to live with relatives and as a result she developed low self esteem. The other daughter called Susan having enjoyed the affection of the mother is bold and lively. Furthermore Emily does not even have friends. This is clear when the mother describes her when the mother says that:
“She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blond replica of Shirley Temple. The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend. Maybe because we moved so much.”
The mother is desperate because she does not know the reason for her daughter’s attitude. This is in contrast with the relationship between Mama and her daughter Maggie in “Everyday Use” because even though Maggie is also shy and passive at least her mother knows the reason. Furthermore the mother and the daughter constantly talk and the mother knows that the daughter is strong in other areas like being more in touch with her heritage. On the other hand in “I stand Here Ironing” the mother only speaks of negative things about her daughter perhaps because she reminds her of her failure in giving her a good upbringing. At least Maggie and Wangero know a bit of their culture and as a result they are proud of it, Emily does not have a clue of her heritage.
Motherly affection constitutes an important aspect in the life of a girl child. This is especially important in an environment where there are cultural conflicts and problems with cultural identity. The mother might not be able to direct a child to conform to a particular culture but the affection given nurtures confidence that will enable the child to grow with high self esteem and self acceptance regardless of the choice made.