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"Everyday Use" begins with Mama and her youngest daughter, Maggie, awaiting the arrival of Mama's eldest daughter, Dee, at their family home. Within the second paragraph of the story, the reader is given a harsh perspective of Maggie's personality and perception of her older sister; Maggie is "homely and ashamed of the burn scars... eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that no' is a word the world never learned to say to her" (106). Alice Walker utilizes Mama's point of view, as well as Mama's flashbacks in time, to convey one family's conflicting views regarding heritage and tradition.
Because the reader is limited solely to Mama's first person point of view and her own descriptive memories regarding Dee's past, the idea of her family's cultural heritage is presented in such a way as to have the reader side with Mama at the conclusion of the story. Mama contrasts and compares Dee with Maggie. Dee is described as "the child who has made it'" (106), while Maggie is pitifully compared with a lame animal; "have you ever seen a lame animal... 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... ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground" (107). Dee is strong, sure of herself, has her own style, has big goals set in place for herself and eventually is sent off to college. However, Dee did not really maintain strong friendships, she more than likely chased them all off with her "faultfinding power" (109). Mama states she herself did not have an education; her school just closed down. "Don't ask me why," she says, "in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they did now" (108). Maggie seems to humbly understand her own station in her life and within her family, she is to marry John Thomas and live a quiet, simple life.
When Dee arrives at the family home, Maggie and Mama are surprised to see Dee accompanied with a man with hair seemingly everywhere and notice that Dee is dressed in bright colors and has let her own hair "stand straight up like the wool on a sheep" (109).
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What once Dee shunned, she has now found a new appreciation for. In the past, one of the family's first homes was burned down while Dee stood firmly nearby and stared at the flames. Mama states that Dee really had "hated the house" (107) and the reader is led to wonder if perhaps Dee might have set fire to her own home. Now that Dee, or Wangero, has come back to visit Mama and Maggie at their current home, she delights in all of the home furnishings. Dee asks Mama for the churn top as well as the dasher; items that are still in use at the home. The fact that Dee had no idea who "whittled" the dasher, that Maggie had to answer the question Dee's companion brought up, effectively portrays the two different senses of heritage and values with their family. Next, the reader learns that while Mama and Maggie have been using the churn and the dasher for the purposes they were created for, Dee wishes to retain the items as decoration, pieces of art. For a moment, Mama pauses over the dasher, noticing that "you didn't even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood" (111). She is recognizing the item's use and remembering who whittled it and who used it. Now, Dee just wants them for table decorations. Dee wants to show off her family's heritage.
This idea of Dee wishing to surround herself with her family's past, but in a current and artistic sense, is further exemplified when Dee searches through Mama's trunk and comes across some old family quilts. Now the reader is subjected to the tension and conflict of Mama and Maggie and their simple, hard-working tradition versus Dee's immersion into the current black cultural movement. As soon as Dee asks for the quilts, Mama has already quit referring to Dee as Dee (Wangero)' and simply calls her Wangero. Mama already is separating Wangero from herself and Maggie in her mind. Dee asks for the quilts and Maggie, in passive-aggressive behavior, is showing her anger and distaste for Wangero's request by creating disruptive noise in the other room; "something falls in the kitchen, and a minute later the kitchen door slammed" (111). Mama notices these noises are Maggie's way of voicing her opinion regarding the quilts and suggests to Wangero that she take different quilts. But Wangero wants authentic, hand-stitched quilts; quilts that her grandmother made from old dresses. Wangero wishes to own another piece of her own history to flaunt in her home, to show her friends.
Mama promised to give Maggie the quilts Grandma made and owned. Through Mama's eyes, the reader sees a glimpse into another facet of Dee's personality once Mama tells Dee, "The truth is... I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas" (111). Dee becomes angry; "'Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!' she said. She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use'" (111). Mama says "'I hope she will!'" (112) and remembers a time in which she had offered the same quilts to Dee when Dee left for college. But at that point in time, Dee had told her "they were old-fashioned, out of style" (112). It just so happens that now, Dee desperately wants these particular quilts. They are in style at the moment and Dee wants them, she is generally used to getting what she wants. Dee and Mama argue a little bit about what is to be done with the quilts.
While Dee and Mama argue, Maggie reappears and the "lame animal" reference is realized again as Maggie tells Mama that Dee can have the quilts. "'I can member Grandma Dee without the quilts'" (112). As she said this, Mama states that she said it "like somebody used to never winning anything... This was Maggie's portion. This was the way she knew God to work" (112). The reader, along with Mama, cannot help but pity and feel for Maggie at this juncture. Mama is subjected to a type of revelation, like she experiences when she is in church. Where once she would give Dee her slightest whim, she now refuses. Mama gives Maggie the quilts, for her "everyday use."
Dee declares that Mama does not understand her own heritage. Mama does not understand Dee's idea of their heritage. Dee tells Maggie, "'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 still live you'd never know it'" (112). Dee still clings to her own view of her family's heritage and leaves her childhood home, slipping on her new, fashionable glasses. She leaves to play dress-up, in a sense, in her new-found "heritage." Mama and Maggie are left behind, but one has the feeling they are not so discontent. They enjoy a bit of snuff together and sit out the evening, basking in their simple, everyday-type traditions and heritage.
Did Mama and Maggie reject Dee's intrusion into their lives with her own views regarding their African heritage? Or did Dee just not understand that her heritage was not necessarily within her African roots, but right under her nose; evident through simple items that her family members made and used? The reader will never know Dee's own thoughts, or even Maggie's for that matter. While the reader is subtly urged towards agreeing with Mama's resolution through Walker's excellent usage of first person point of view, it is difficult not to recognize the sense of value that each family member associated with every family item and piece of heritage.
Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." Literature and the Writing Process. Ed. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice, 2005. 106-112