Alice Walker’s modern classic “Everyday Use” tells the story of a mother and her two daughters’ conflicting ideas about their identities and ancestry. The mother narrates the story of the day one daughter, Dee, visits from college and clashes with the other daughter, Maggie, over the possession of some heirloom quilts.
The story begins with the narrator, a “big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands” awaiting the homecoming of her daughter Dee, an educated woman who now lives in the city. Accompanying her is her younger daughter, Maggie, a shy girl who regards her sister with a “mixture of envy and awe.” As they wait, the narrator reveals details of the family history, specifically the relationship between her two girls. A fire when they were children destroyed their first house and left Maggie badly scarred on her arms and legs. The mother’s memory of the night the house burned defines her two daughters: Maggie “with her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little peppery flakes” and Dee “standing off under the sweet gum tree.. .[with] a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house fall in toward the red-hot chimney.”
Since the fire the two daughters have taken diverging paths. Maggie has a little education, but according to her mother, “she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by.” She is, however, engaged to marry and will soon leave her mother’s house. Dee, on the other hand, has been ambitious and determined since girlhood to rise above her humble beginnings. Thanks to her mother’s and the church’s fundraising efforts, she has gone off to school in Augusta.
When Dee arrives, Maggie and her mother are waiting in the front yard, which serves the family as “an extended living room.” She emerges from the car dressed in bright clothing and gold jewelry; her boyfriend, Hakim-a-barber, has wild-looking hair. After greeting her mother and Maggie in a language they do not understand, Dee starts taking pictures, posing Maggie and her mother in front of the house as though she were a tourist. Dee tells her mother that’ ‘Dee is dead,” and her new name is “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.” She claims she could not stand being ‘ ‘named after the people who oppress me.” Her mother’s complaints that’ ‘Dee” is an old family name do not register.
During the meal Dee reveals her true intentions in visiting: to collect objects for her home that she can use to display her heritage. First she takes the butter churn, which she plans to use “as a centerpiece for the alcove table.” After dinner Dee continues to search for objects for her collection and latches on to the quilts that had been made by her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. The quilts contain pieces of family history, scraps from old dresses and shirts that family members have worn. One patch is constructed of the girls’ great grandfather’s Civil War uniform.
The quilts, however, have already been promised to Maggie for her wedding. Dee contends that she has a right to them because she understands their value as folk art, declaring them “priceless.” Maggie, on the other hand, is prepared to relinquish her rights to them rather than argue with her sister. When Maggie tells her she can have the quilts, because she “can ‘member Grandma Dee” without them, the mother knows instantly who is the most deserving. She hugs Maggie, who was “used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her,” and “snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap.” After Dee departs without the quilts, Maggie smiles a “real smile” for the first time.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Alice Walker, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.