Although Grandma Dee, as the Johnson women call her, does not appear in the story, she is a significant presence. Maggie is attached to the quilts because they make her think of Grandma Dee. Thus, although the woman is dead, she represents the cherished family presence that lives on in Maggie’s and her mother’s connection to the past.
Hakim-a-barber is Dee’s boyfriend who accompanies her on her visit back home. Though he has grown his hair long in an African style that identifies him with the black power movement, he refuses to eat collard greens and pork at dinner— traditional African-American foods. This minor character’s name is perhaps his most significant feature. Mrs. Johnson confusedly accepts his black Muslim greeting, “Asalamalakim,” as his name, and “Hakim-a-barber” is her guess at the pronunciation of what he tells her to call him. This confusion signals the gap between black nationalist ideas and rural African-American life.
Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo
See Dee Johnson
Dee is Mrs. Johnson’s oldest daughter; the one who has always been determined, popular, and successful. Upon returning home after escaping her impoverished home life and forging a new identity at college, one which ostensibly celebrates her African heritage, Dee tells her mother that “Dee is dead,” and her name is now Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Thus, Dee denies her real heritage, in which she was named for her aunt. Dee’s other attempts to appreciate her cultural heritage miss the mark: she wants to display her mother’s possessions in her home as examples of folk art but refuses to recognize their greater value to her mother and sister as objects of’ ‘everyday use” that they still use.
Burned severely in a house fire as a child, the shy, stammering Maggie Johnson cowers in the overwhelming presence of her sister. While Dee has moved on to an entirely new life, Maggie still lives in poverty with her mother, putting “priceless” objects to “everyday use.” At the end of the story, the quiet, self-conscious Maggie smiles, “a real smile, not scared,” because her mother has finally recognized that she, not Dee, is the daughter who understands her heritage and the importance of connecting with one’s ancestors.
Mrs. Johnson is the narrator of this story, overseeing its events and interpreting, more through her actions than her words, their significance. As she waits for her daughter Dee to return home for a visit, she demonstrates her lack of self-esteem by imagining a much thinner, prettier version of herself meeting her daughter on a television show. Near the end of the story, Mrs. Johnson demonstrates a shift in her maternal sympathies by taking the quilts from Dee and giving them to Maggie, signaling for the reader where the author’s own sympathies also lie.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Alice Walker, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.