In “Everyday Use,” the contrast between Dee’s beliefs and those of her mother and sister is emphasized by the different values the characters place on some old quilts and other objects in the home.
The main theme in the story concerns the characters’ connections to their ancestral roots. Dee Johnson believes that she is affirming her African heritage by changing her name, her mannerisms, and her appearance, even though her family has lived in the United States for several generations. Maggie and Mrs. Johnson are confused and intimidated by her new image as “Wangero.” Their own connections to their heritage rest on their memories of their mothers and grandmothers; they prefer to remember them for who they were as individuals, not as members of a particular race. Because of their differing viewpoints, each values the Johnson’s possessions for different reasons. Dee digs around the house for objects she can display in her own home as examples of African-American folk art. Maggie and her mother value the same objects not for their artistic value, but because they remind them of their loved ones. Dee admires a butterchurn, and when Maggie says it was carved by their aunt’s first husband—”His name was Henry, but they called him Stash”—Dee responds condescendingly that her sister’s memory is like an elephant’s. But the story suggests that Maggie’s elephant-like memory for her loved ones and her appreciation for their handiwork is a more genuine way to celebrate their heritage than Dee’s “artistic” interests in removing these ordinary objects and exalting them as examples of their African roots.
Dee’s materialism is demonstrated at a young age when she watches her modest home burn with “a look of concentration on her face.” Later,’ ‘Dee wanted nice things”—particularly clothes—and was interested in maintaining a style that belied her humble roots. Her mother states that when she sees the new house, a three-room shack with no ‘ ‘real” windows and a tin roof, “she will want to tear it down.” Her appearance confirms this trend: she is dressed in elaborate clothes and gold jewelry. Dee’s interest in the butterchurn and the quilts is raised because they are “priceless” objects. She wants to possess them as relics and would not think of employing them for “everyday use.” In contrast to Dee’s materialism is Maggie’s and her mother’s pride in their home and their contentedness with life. They have made the front yard “clean and wavy” in anticipation of her arrival, and the yard is “more comfortable than most people know.”
Community vs. Isolation
The quilts represent the Johnsons’ connection to their community. They are formed by patches of clothing from many peoples’ clothes, forming a mosaic that represents the past, their loved ones’ lives, and their family history. Dee’s lack of interest in the people with whom Maggie associates the quilt underscores the story’s emphasis on the importance of community. Furthermore, while Dee cannot wait to escape her family’s poverty so she can go to college and have nice things, her mother and sister have a clean yard in which “anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree.” Maggie, despite her shyness, is engaged to be married, showing her ability to connect with another person. Dee, who Maggie suggests has never had real friends, has been jilted by a man who “flew to marry a cheap city girl.” By showing the different paths the sisters have taken, Walker suggests that black nationalists such as Dee and Hakim-a-barber, who identify with their African ancestry by rejecting white ways, have cut themselves off from connecting with their backgrounds, which often have not been steeped in African tradition. Dee’s apparent embarrassment about her rural roots contrasts sharply with Maggie’s heartfelt connection through the quilts to her grandmother.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Alice Walker, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.