Alice Walker’s short story ‘Everyday Use’ is about Dee seeing her heritage and the legacy of her ancestors as something that has already passed and gone, so that there is a danger of her true heritage being abandoned and lost. However, Mama’s understanding demonstrates that she and Maggie are are still linked through the way they live in rural poverty in the South to their ancestors (by the everyday use of items like the quilts).
Dee’s name change is symptomatic of the person she has become. As Christian (14) writes:
Dee/Wangero in ‘Everyday Use’ is embarrassed by her folk. She has been to the north, wears an Afro, and knows the correct political rhetoric of the 1960s, but she has little regard for her relatives who have helped create that heritage.
She wants the quilts to frame, to hang on the wall as proof of her roots, but this is ironic as she is actually embarrassed by the way that Mama and Maggie live. The very fact that she has not visited them for so long shows this, and the way she takes photos of Mama and Maggie in front of their very humble house as ‘proof’ of the authenticity of her roots is similarly patronizing. Dee wants these things for decoration, to declare the poverty of her black background, but they are things that Mama and Maggie still use every day. The same is true of the quilts which Dee demands at the very end of the story: they represent the shared efforts of previous members of the family as Mama makes clear to the reader:
In both of them were scraps of dresses that Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. And one teeny faced blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War. (Walker 53)
As with the churn top and the dasher, Dee wants these things for display, not everyday use – she wants to show off the poverty of her roots to friends like her who have become successful. Ironically Dee seems to think that Mama and Maggie do not understand their past. She says:
These are all pieces of dresses Grandma used to wear. She did all this stitching by hand. Imagine! (Walker 53)
But, as Noe and Jaynes put it, “Mama doesn’t have to imagine; she knows.” (161). They still live a lifestyle that is almost identical to that of Grandma. Dee/Wangero still does not understand at the end of the story, saying as she leaves:
You just don’t understand... Your heritage... You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama live you’d never know it. (Walker 55)
But it was not a new day for African-Americans caught in the poverty trap that the South was at that time.
Mama’s view on heritage only becomes clear towards the end of the story, and it is shown by her refusal to let Dee have the quilts.
Mama gives her legacy of quilts to Maggie, the uglier, scarred, less flamboyant, less confident, more traditional, less-educated sister rather than to her elder sister, Dee. (Noe and Jaynes 162)
As far as Mama is concerned heritage has to be genuine and real, and she finds Dee’s name change slightly comical, because by seeking to re-connect with her African roots, Dee is ignoring her roots in slavery and poverty – from which things of beauty like the quilts did come. But the title of the story shows that Mama thinks the quilts are for ‘everyday use’ and that Maggie (partly because she knows how to quilt herself) truly understands. Mama does not put it like this but she realizes, as Lauret (114) writes, “Like the quilt, which is made from scraps of the past to provide warmth and decoration on the bed, not the museum wall, all art should be used, not framed.” It is when Mama looks at Maggie that she realizes that Maggie is part of the tradition of quilting:
It was Grandma Dee and Big Dee who taught her how to quilt herself. She stood there with her scarred hands hidden in the folds of her skirt. She looked at her sister with something like fear but she wasn’t mad at her. This was Maggie’s portion. This was the way she knew God to work. (Walker 54)
Mama understands that Maggie has a sense of heritage that Dee will never have and cannot understand, and so it is Maggie who must keep the quilts.
This story encourages us to see heritage as a link to an ancestry that you are still in touch with in your everyday life. As Skipp (122) puts it, “The visit of the superficially Africanized daughter to her mother and sister living in isolated rural poverty contrasts the attitude of the sisters toward two bedroom quilts: African heritage as display vs. heritage for everyday use.” Walker suggests through mama’s narration that heritage should be real and for ‘everyday use.’ Dee’s visit home after so many years shows that, despite her name change, her hair style and her affluence, she has lost touch with her real roots:
“The reunion does not accomplish reunification but merely underlines the distance.” (Koppleman xxvi) Maggie and Mama know exactly what their roots are because they live a life that is deeply connected with the previous generations of the family. Heritage is a provocative subject when we consider this story. Is heritage something that can be lost – as Dee appears to have lost hers? Or is it something that will forever be a part of that person – just as Maggie will always be the shy, scarred woman who knows how to quilt like her grandmother did?
Christian, Barbara. Alice Walker. 1994. New York: Rutgers University Press. Print.
Koppleman, Susan. Between Mothers and Daughters. 1985. New York: The Feminist Press. Print.
Lauret, Maria. Alice Walker. 2000. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Print.
Noe, Marcia & Jaynes, Michael. ‘Teaching Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’ Employing Race, Class and Gender.’ Pages 155 – 168 in Bloom, Harold. Alice Walker: a Modern Critical View. 2007. New York: Infobase Publishing. Print.
Skipp, Francis E. American Literature. 1992. New York: Barron’s Educational Series. Print.
Walker, Alice. The Complete Stories. 1994. London: The Women’s Press. Print.