“Everyday Use,” or Why Emma Should Be Allowed to Wear the Crown Jewels

  • a write up by Emma Bennett

“Everyday Use” by Alice Walker follows a family of three: Mama, and her two daughters Maggie and Dee. The story opens with Mama and Maggie waiting in the yard for Dee’s arrival. Mama reflects on dreams she’d had about their reunion, similar to TV shows where a child who has “made it” is presented to their parents and tears ensue. Mama then reflects on the reality on her life, which is much less glamorous than on TV. Maggie’s tentative arrival interrupts her thoughts; Mama mentally compares her child to a lame animal and remembers when their first house burned. Maggie was burned and now bears scars that make her self-conscious and timid. Dee hated their old house, and Mama used to think she hated Maggie as well, until Mama and the church raised money to send Dee to school. Dee’s education separated her from Mama and Maggie, who found it hard to keep up with her.

Dee arrives, wearing a bright dress, and with her hair styled in a way that appears unusual to Mama and Maggie. She greets them with a phrase neither of them understands, as does the man accompanying her. After telling her mother not to get up, Dee takes a camera from the car and snaps some photographs of her family and their house. Only after she’s finished does she kiss her mother on the forehead. When Mama greets Dee, Dee tells her that she is no longer Dee, but Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. When Mama asks why, Dee tells her that she doesn’t want to be named after her oppressor, to which Mama responds by pointing out the family ties to the name. This doesn’t change Dee’s mind, so Mama tries pronouncing her name, but can’t manage her companion’s, who tells her to call him Hakim-a-barber.

The four of them sit down to eat traditional southern food, though Hakim-a-barber won’t eat collards or pork. Dee is delighted by everything, including that her mother is still using benches her father made when they couldn’t afford chairs. After they eat, Dee takes the butter dish, remarking that she wanted to ask if she could have it. She asks for the butter churn top and dasher as well, and after she’s wrapped them up, Mama holds the dasher and ponders how you can see the marks that years of use have left on it. Dee asks next for two quilts, made by Grandma Dee from a collection of cloth scraps from various times in the past. Mama tells her that she promised to give them to Maggie when she marries. Dee is scandalized; she tells Mama that Maggie won’t appreciate the quilts, and might do something stupid like use them. When Mama remarks that she hopes Maggie will use them, Dee points out how priceless they are, and says she would hang them instead. Maggie comes into the room and tells Mama that Dee can have the quilts. Mama is struck by how resigned Maggie looks, and all of a sudden snatches the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie. Dee storms out, and when Mama and Maggie come to the car, tells Mama she doesn’t understand her heritage. She then tells Maggie to try to make something for herself, and leaves. Maggie and Mama sit in the yard together, “just enjoying.”

“Everyday Use” introduces two different perspectives on culture and heritage through Dee and Mama (and by extension Maggie). Dee has traced her culture back to her African roots and has sought to learn more about them. She adapts her life to her new knowledge by changing her name and clothing style, and using Luganda phrases. She holds this form of her culture in such high esteem that she unwittingly rejects a culture much closer to her: that of her immediate family, and their simple lives. Dee sees the quilts as relics of the past, meant to be treasured and observed; she sees their place in history more than in everyday life. In addition, she wants the butter churn top and dasher for “artistic” purposes, ignoring that Mama and Maggie still use them, and know their history better than she does. When Mama refuses to give her the quilts, Dee is openly affronted and even condescending, commenting that Mama doesn’t understand her heritage. Though Dee believes she is doing the right thing for her heritage, she understands little about her immediate culture, and possibly even little about the Ugandan culture she emulates. Dee has spent a lot of time trying to leave the country life her mother and sister lead, but is willing to return and bear their trapping when it suits her. She wants the image of that life, but not its substance. Similarly, Hakim-a-barber claims to believe in the ideals of the Muslim community that lives down the road from Mama, but rejects their labor-intensive lifestyle. He, like Dee, is willing to take on the image and ideas of cultures and faiths he doesn’t fully understand.

Mama has a different take on culture and heritage. She focuses more on the here and now, and what she and Maggie have made of their lives. Dee’s attempts to incorporate their more distant culture confuse her; she doesn’t speak whatever language Dee greets her with, is struck by the impracticality of Dee’s clothing, and questions why Dee would change her name when it has importance within the family. Mama has very specific memories of using the butter dasher, showing a more hands-on relationship with her personal culture. While Dee sees putting old quilts to everyday use as “backward,” Mama doesn’t understand the point of not using something for its intended purpose, no matter how old it is. She even comments that if the quilts are worn out, Maggie can make some more; this indicates that quilting, an aspect of Mama’s cultural heritage, has been passed down to Maggie, and lives in her. While Dee views the destruction of these specific quilts as the destruction of the past, Mama seems to favor the view that the past lives in people; the quilts are a less important part of their heritage than Maggie is.

“Everyday Use” is set in the 1960s or 1970s: either the decade of the Civil Rights movement, or the decade following it. Either way, racism took more severe forms than in modern times, and black Americans as a whole were trying to define and control the many different facets of their collective identity. Though “Everyday Use” is not a story about racism, that social issue is ever-present in the background. Dee, unlike her mother and sister, is able to look a white man in the eye; her comment about not wanting to be named for her oppressors, though potentially misguided, points out the position of black Americans in society. Mama herself can recall a time when black people asked less questions, and Dee’s efforts to trace her roots to Uganda show that she, and the young generation as a whole, are likely asking many questions. The disparity between Mama and Dee’s ideologies can be linked to generational differences as well as personality differences.

Things to steal:

  1. Characters representing philosophical views
  2. A physical object symbolizing the roots of an argument
  3. Have a character’s ingrained expectations/life paradigm be shifted

Questions:

  • What is your opinion on cultural heritage? Should it be treasured or put to use?
  • Do you think issues of race deserved a bigger role in the story?
  • Why do you think the details of the burned house and Maggie’s scars were included?
  • Why do you think Dee took pictures of her mother and sister with their house?
  • How much of Dee’s character do you think is influenced by her education? Would Mama and Maggie think differently if they had her level of education? What do you think Alice Walker is saying about education?

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