‘Everyday Use’ is set in the American rural down South; superficially, it is a story of Mama Johnson and her conflicting psychological reception and relationship with her two daughters, Dee and Maggie (Xroads). Dee has taken an impressive formal education and now works in an urban environment; she is light skinned and sophisticated (Xroads).
Maggie has never left, she is the typical country girl, even in appearance and there are still traces of scars that she obtained from a house fire. Mama Johnson, who was born and grew in the early days of the past century, is struggling to understand the implications of her own background (represented by Maggie) in comparison to the life that Dee now leads. She keeps comparing Dee and Maggie. In the end she favors the practical life and values of the less fortunate Maggie instead of the superficial values of Dee.
Deep down, the story is exploring the question of African-American heritage; the story, probably set in the ebbing days of the 1960s or at the dawn of 1970s, coincides with the attempt of African-Americans to define their identity in terms of culture (Xroads).
The term ‘Negro’ was gradually replaced with ‘Black’ but the pains and injustices of the past had been so cruel that the black people are willing to deny and reject their American heritage (Xroads). This story is an exploration of both African and American heritages of the black people; the three characters represent the three faces of this theme.
Mama represents the uncertain link between the African and American heritages. From mama’s description of herself, the way she takes pride in her expertise at killing and cleaning a hog, makes one see that she appreciates the practical aspects of her life and nature, it is easy to assume that she cannot ponder such an abstract concept as heritage.
Yet, even with her lack of formal education and refinement, her respect and love for those who preceded her reflects her inherent comprehension of heritage through the way that she is able to associate pieces of clothes in two quilts with those who’s clothes the pieces had been cut from (Xroads). The quilts “are special to Mama when she touches the quilts, it is her way of touching the people that the quilts represent” (Xroads).
These quilts are a symbol and represent gone times to which one still has a shaky and ambivalent relationship; the same symbolism is portrayed through the dasher handle. When mama touches the ridges left by fingers of those who are gone, she connects with them (Xroads).
Dee’s superficial nature: her personality, her dressing and speech, represents the superficial perspective of heritage that the Black Power movement preached. There are inconsistencies in her style and her manner and she does not understand the origin of her name ‘Dee’ and the link to her family; this is a reflection of her attempt to reject her American heritage.
Maggie, on the other hand, is nervous in the presence of Dee and is ashamed of her scars and hides from Dee; these scars symbolize the fires of slavery. Her manner: staring at the ground, her feet in shuffle; she represents the American heritage of the black people.
Dee and Maggie do not interact, it is only as the story ends that Dee speaks to her angrily as she is leaving; this ending portrays the relationship of the African and American heritages. The former acting inferiorly before the latter that does not hesitate to flaunt its perceived superiority and assert its assumed disconnection from the former.
The general argument that Alice projects here is that African-American is a product of both African and American natives, and rejecting the American face is not only disrespectful to their respective ancestors, but also detrimental to that heritage which defines the blacks.
Xroads. “Everyday Use by Alice Walker.” 2011. Web. 8 Nov. 2011.