Race and racial identity is at the center of Everyday Use. Mama’s racial experience has stayed relatively unchanged throughout her life. The only deviation from her status quo comes in the form of her eldest daughter Dee. Dee never accepted her place in life as an impoverished African-American girl in rural Georgia. There was always in Dee a tacit awareness that she is lighter skinned than the average black girl and that her socio-cultural expectations should somehow be “higher”.
When Dee goes away to school, she rejects her ancestral quilts as a way to distance herself from her upbringing. At college, Dee finds African nationalism and seeks to legitimize her identity within this context. She adopts a Ugandan name, Wangero, and style of dress. Dee’s new take on identity is in stark contrast to Mama's sense of identity, which is rooted in her immediate history and ancestry. While Dee seeks to better herself by embracing her roots, she nevertheless subjugates Mama and Maggie by suggesting that they do not know the value of their own culture - one in which they still live.
Walker presents myriad of themes and motifs surrounding race. Is Dee’s objectifying of Mama and Maggie merely a form of classism or is it a continued rebuke of her past? As Dee leaves Mama and Maggie standing in a cloud of dust clutching their quilts, it is clear the idea of racial identity is complex and inherently both personal and political.
Perhaps the biggest irony in the story is Dee’s rejection of her real heritage for a broader, yet limited, cultural ideal. By juxtaposing Dee with her sister and mother, Walker suggests Dee's new identity is simply a superficial rebranding of herself. She strives to wear her heritage like a unique treasure but ends up shrouded in imitation. Dee reinvents herself using a mixture of academic and romantic ideas of pre-colonial Africa, but her flamboyant clothing combined with her gaudy jewelry make “Wangero” look more like an African caricature rather than an authentic attempt at a cultural shift in attitude. In swapping her name - a familial namesake - for a Ghanaian one, she opts to identify with a less specific aspect of her heritage.
Dee's appreciation for items in Mama's home as artifacts of her heritage is similarly misguided. She insists a quilt, once viewed as a symbol of her family's poverty, is now imbued with the spirit of her ancestry. But Dee wants to fetishize these objects rather than put them to "everyday use", rejecting the active heritage around her. These items are an extension of her real heritage; having evolved with the family rather than become quaint reminders of a life Dee put behind her when she left for school. Her notion of heritage is one that is past - even though Mama and Maggie and their way of life are still very much present and valid. Heritage is, thus, both past and present, and encompasses one's personal and ancestral history.
Everyday Use is a story about a family homecoming, and the dynamics between the three women provide much of the narrative drama. Its narrator, Mama, reflects on her daughters and the circumstances of their upbringing while awaiting Dee's return. Dee was the more difficult child, but Mama nevertheless loved her. Maggie is scarred, but loving, respectful of her family and heritage. Mama believes that family ties are indelible, even despite Dee's dismissal of her childhood and direct ancestry. Named after a long line of Dees, Wangero's rejection of her birth name is a symbol for the rejection of her family - even if that rejection is an attempt to connect to a larger history. To Mama and Maggie, however, the people you come from and who raised you matter more than a legacy you read about in books. Like any family, Mama's family is fraught with drama and history, complexity and contradiction.
There is a sense of coziness and belonging that permeates the beginning of the story. Mama’s yard and living room seem extensions of each other, and of the family. Mama and Maggie live in relative poverty but at least their home belongs to Mama and she loves it. However, behind the placid portrait of home lie many painful memories. Mama’s husband is non-existent and Maggie’s disfigurement is a constant reminder of the fire that burned their last house down. Dee’s rejection of home also causes scars. Mama feels these scars opening again upon Dee’s return. To Dee, “home” is more an intellectual construct and not a place she belongs to; it as place filled with belongings that she can co-opt and repurpose to fit her new persona. To Mama and Maggie, home is a life force where artifacts like quilts and a butter churn evolve with the people using them.
Tradition in this story is reflected through items that are meant for everyday use. Items like the worn benches, butter churn, and quilts are living testimonies to people long dead. They represent a lifestyle that Mama and her community still lead. Dee finds these items traditional but appreciates them only in an academic context. She severs the objects from her ancestors that made and used them. To Dee they represent not family but a type of people and history she has long divorced herself from. Mama refuses to let these items become kitsch for her daughter’s flat. By putting them to good use, these items cease to become “artifacts” and remain integral to the lives of proud, hard-working people who continue to keep their traditions alive.
Everyday Use Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Everyday Use is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
I think that Maggie has always lived under the shadow of her big sister Dee. She was burned in the fire, when their house burned down, and is self conscious of her appearance. She is not "sophisticated" like Dee or educated like Dee.