The story begins with Mama waiting in the yard for her eldest daughter Dee to return. Mama’s yard is an extension of her living room: the dirt ground flows into the small shack without separation. We are told little about Mama's husband; he is simply out of the picture and all of Mama's accomplishments, including the raising of her children, seem to be done by her own hand. Walker does not state the geographic setting outright, but we can surmise that Mama’s small farm is located somewhere in rural Georgia.
Mama discusses her younger daughter Maggie. Maggie nervously anticipates her big sister Dee. Maggie is apprehensive about the emotional stress and anxiety that will come with Dee's arrival. Mama daydreams about being on the Johnny Carson Show and reuniting with Dee in front of a sea of white faces.
Mama breaks out of her reverie to explain the realities of her life. Unlike the slim and lighter-skinned fantasy of herself on the Johnny Carson Show, Mama has darker skin and is big boned, wearing overalls rather than feminine clothing. She points out that her fat keeps her warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Mama does the work of two men on her farm. She can kill a bull calf and have the meat hung up to chill by nightfall.
Maggie lurks in the shadows not wanting to be fully visible. Mama describes her as a lame dog. Mama recalls the fire that burned their first house down. Maggie still bears the scars of that fateful night. Mama also recalls that Dee just stood there and watched the house burn with a condescending smile on her face. To Dee, the old house defined them as poor black farmers, the descendants of sharecroppers. Mama remembers how Dee willed herself to be different from her rural neighbors with her book smarts and by having a style all her own. Dee wanted nice things and was intent on getting them. If she couldn't afford to buy fancy clothes, she would make them. She seldom heard the word "no".
Dee finally arrives wearing a colorful, chic African dress. Maggie tries to bolt for the house but Mama stops her. Dee has changed her name to the more “African” sounding "Wangero". Mama attempts to explain that her given name Dee holds deep family meaning but "Wangero" insists that, at one time, it must surely have been a slave name forced on them by white owners. Mama recalls that she and her church made great sacrifices to send Dee to school in Augusta, where she learned about her historical roots. Dee greets them with an emphatic "Wa-su-zo-Tean-o", a Ugandan greeting. She introduces her partner Hakim-a-barber, whom Mama calls "Asalamalakim" after his Muslim greeting. Mama is weary of Dee’s brief entrance back into her life.
Dee has come back to lay claim to some old blankets that she has a newfound “historic” appreciation for: she thinks they would make trendy décor for her apartment. To Dee, the quilts represent the historical significance of an oppressed people. The problem is that Mama has a much more practical use for the quilts; Mama intends to give them to Dee’s much less sophisticated, and less garish, younger sister Maggie. Unlike Dee, Maggie is destined to get married within the community and live out her life in a setting much like Mama’s.
Hakim-a-barber attempts to kiss Maggie but she recoils in horror. They sit down to eat but, while Dee treats the meal as an exotic buffet, Hakim-a-barber announces that he can't eat an unclean animal like pork. Both feign interest in visiting with Mama and Maggie as they rifle through Mama’s house looking for “quaint” collectables. Dee makes a dozen or so patronizing insults, veiled as casual “chit-chat”, directed at Mama and Maggie. She insists that Maggie will use the quilts she desires for everyday use. Maggie attempts to show her displeasure with her sister by dropping a plate in the shadows but she finally succumbs to Dee's forcefulness. In her meek voice, Maggie squeaks that Dee can have the quilts.
Mama, however, has had enough of this emotional bludgeoning, and tells Wangero to take two other quilts not intended for Maggie and leave. Dee tells Maggie to make something of herself and ironically tells Mama that she doesn't understand her own heritage. Then both Dee and Hakim-a-barber climb into their car and disappear in a cloud of dust as quickly as they arrived.
Alice Walker does an adept job at blurring the difference between the stereotypes of rural black American women with the realities that make up their lives. To the casual viewer, Mama’s old homestead looks dilapidated: a stereotype of the humble lives of poor black subsistence farmers of the Old South. Mama’s yard is nevertheless clean and she finds her abode comfortable and relaxing. Although Mama’s eldest daughter Dee and her “friend” Hakim-a-barber will look down on the way she lives, her reality is her own and she is proud of what she has accomplished. Telling the story in first person allows the reader to get inside Mama's perspective without judgment. As Mama explains her situation in a matter-of-fact tone, Walker is able to paint the picture of the setting in a neutral way.
The reader is introduced to the tension between Mama and her eldest daughter Dee early in the story. Mama fantasizes about the kind of reunion she might have with Dee on television. She thinks of Johnny Carson and a sea of white people waiting to be warmed by the reunion of a poor black woman and her long lost daughter who has “made it” in the world. There are the requisite tears and sighs from the audience. Mama stands sheepishly to one side while Dee takes control of the situation. Mama marvels at how Dee can manipulate the white audience, twisting her own history into a narrative they want to hear. Here we see Mama imagining her daughter’s fantasy, not her own. It is crucial that in this fantasy, Mama imagines herself as lighter - in skin tone, body weight and wit. She knows that she does not fit the ideal that Dee so desperately aspires to. Mama understands that Dee despises her circumstances, and Mama wishes she could be what her daughter wants. However, she understands that this cannot be, and she is who she is.
In real life, Mama is not "camera-ready"; she is large and big boned. She wears flannel nightgowns to bed and old thick overalls during most days. There is a quiet sincerity about Mama that earns her the reader’s respect early in her narrative. She is loving, forgiving, and frank. She has no illusions about either of her daughters. Her memories of Dee growing up help give us perspective on the self-absorbed patronizing young woman who will soon blow through her house. Mama refuses to draw attention to herself: she personifies an ethos born out of humbleness and practicality. Indeed, she never even tells us her name; her identity is comprised of a hard life of experience and her position as head of her matriarchal family.
Unlike Dee, Maggie will be the one to inherit that position from Mama. While Dee is intelligent and assertive, Maggie is “slow” and withdrawn; while Dee preens over her attractive appearance and lighter skin, Maggie darts away from her own reflection, so self-conscious of her plainness and scars. Mama describes Maggie as a wounded animal who must live her life forever subjugated to forces greater than her own will. Throughout the story, Maggie is described in less than flattering terms. Although loyal and affectionate, Mama does not reinforce her with any strong qualities. It is even more disconcerting that Mama believes Maggie incapable of acquiring any strong qualities. Mama’s half-compliments about Dee’s natural beauty, “lighter skin”, and clever wit is juxtaposed with her comments about good looks, money, and quickness passing Maggie by. Mama has long been content with her lot in life and projects this same sense of fatalism onto young Maggie. According to Mama, the best Maggie can hope for is to “marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face).” Much like Dee, Mama’s limitations help shape her strengths. But with her acceptance of circumstance comes complacency. Maggie is, however, still young and Mama fails to accept that her life has possibilities. While Mama has carved out a life for herself, she gives us the sense that Maggie will fail at becoming an individual; she will disappear into a life of farm work, caring for children, and becoming an extension of her husband.
Even as a young girl, Dee searched for what she perceived as “better”. She wanted nice things and stylish clothes. Dee was self-possessed, clever and critical. Her mind craved education. For Dee, education was a way to transcend her experiences and forecast a brighter future for herself in the dawn of the Civil Rights era. Education was not something Mama had access to; the school closed in second grade and no one ever asked why. She says, in 1927, “colored asked fewer questions than they do now.” (92) Her generation was more complacent with their lot in life, not for lack of pride or hope, but because of the oppressive mechanism of racism that made a life like Dee's impossible for Mama. Dee, however, did not take no for an answer. Her immaturity and selfishness were tools used to escape a life she did not want.
However, Dee is incredibly judgmental and naive about Mama and Maggie's lives. She insists that Mama and Maggie "choose" to live where they do. While they may accept their fate, Maggie and Mama did not choose the life they were born into. Though Dee has access to changing times, not everyone born in the poor, rural black South is able to craft a new life and identity out of sheer will - and the financial help from Mama and her church. In return for her family's generosity, Dee patronized them with stories of other people’s lives and more “civilized” ways. Dee used her education as a weapon to wield against her own family.
Dee has reinvented herself as Wangero, and wears a bright African dress that Mama dislikes at first. Dee says that she refuses to go by the name given to her by white oppressors. Mama attempts to educate “Wangero” on the family lineage of her name. Dee rebukes her immediate genealogy, claiming that all their names come from white slave owners at one point in history. This is indeed true, yet Dee's adoption of Wangero and her Ghanaian greeting read as a superficial attempt to bury a past she despises.
The irony of Dee rebuking her own heritage in exchange for imagined pre-slavery identity is what shapes the rest of the story. She photographs her family home as an archaeologist would for National Geographic. Dee makes sure she gets a picture of Mama, the old house, and Maggie cowering in the corner. Both Mama and Maggie are objectified and exploited in these photos, like actors in costume at some living tourist museum. Dee envisions herself a journalist with a keen insight into her own life, but this insight is sanitized rather than enlightened by education as well as her personal hypocrisy.
Dee's shift in attitude is more fully revealed during dinner. Hakim-a-barber refuses to eat collards and pork, calling them “unclean”. Dee gets into her food like a tourist who has just discovered her new favorite ethnic meal. Dee gets excited about the benches, butter churn and various other objects, which she considers important artifacts, around the house. Dee finds them quaint and worthy showpieces for her apartment. Dee suddenly becomes fixated on some quilts that were put together by Grandma Dee, Big Dee, and Mama - despite earlier rejecting them as disgustingly quaint signifiers of her rural youth. She wants them now because she thinks they represent the historical significance of an oppressed people. Her education has taught her the value of the quilts, but only as items of the past, stripped of their familial context.
Mama tells Dee that she can have a set of newer quilts but Dee objects. Mama insists that the quilts will go to Maggie who will use them after she gets married. Wangero becomes incensed that her much less sophisticated sister will put the quilts to “everyday use”. Finally we see that even Mama has a breaking point. Much like her daydream about the Johnny Carson Show, whatever hopes that Mama might have had of re-connecting with her daughter become the stuff of fantasy. Mama can no longer endure Dee's shaming. In Mama's first real act of dissent, Mama tells Dee to take one or two of the other blankets if she wishes and walks out of the house. Walker concludes her characterization of Dee with a final insult veiled as advice: she tells Mama that, “you just don’t…understand your heritage.” (96) This passive aggressive mockery is extended to Maggie as well when Dee tells her to “make something of herself.” Of course, Mama understands her heritage is more than symbols or artifacts, but of the context of family that created them. Tradition cannot be boiled down to a decorative object; it is still living and breathing, in Mama and Maggie.
The immediate conclusion the reader has about Dee might generally be negative. This conclusion, however, is largely born out of Dee's immaturity towards both her heritage and her own family. There is a subtext to Dee that Walker subtly weaves throughout the story. Dee would have had to overcome many obstacles to get to the point of her loud and garish arrival to Mama's house. Being intelligent was not enough for a black girl from rural Georgia to excel in an institutionalized white university. She would also have had to be tenacious and driven. Ironically it is the parts of Dee’s personality that we might find objectionable that has enabled her deeper understanding of herself, however misguided. Even Mama gives Dee the benefit of the doubt at first. Mama does not protest about Dee's name change, and insists she will call her daughter by whatever name she chooses for herself. While Mama has no time for pretense, she does offer a more balanced and complex insight into the struggle represented by the girls' behavior. Mama can see right and wrong in both children, and in both points of view. But she does put her foot down when Dee tries to take Maggie's quilts away. In Maggie's marriage, she will keep the traditions passed down from her aunts and grandmother alive. Giving Dee the quilts would kill what Dee believes is already dead. But Maggie can continue traditions into the future by putting these humble objects to everyday use.
In the end, Wangero severs her connection with her real heritage for an imagined stylized heritage; in her drive to create a "new day" for Black Americans, she has also dismissed the very people that have shaped it.