“[Maggie] will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, 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.”
This is Mama’s first introduction of Maggie to the reader. Maggie is defined in a less than complimentary way to the reader. Maggie's identity as unattractive and slow-witted yet lovable is largely born out of a juxtaposition to Mama's perception of Dee as an attractive but callous super-achiever. This duality suggests the contrast between the old and new generation of African-American women in the late 1960's.
“After second grade the school was closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.”
Mama indicates that her children are coming of age in a world much different from hers. Mama had been raised to be wary of speaking out against inequality, instead adapting to injustice through quiet passivity. But by the 1960s and 1970s, blacks had begun to challenge the status quo. By extension, a stronger African-American voice brought with it greater opportunities for advancement that Mama had not been afforded in her youth. Her daughter Dee also alludes to this changing sociopolitical atmosphere when she tells Maggie that this is "a new day" for them.
Dee (Wangero) looked at me with hatred. “You just will not understand. The point is these quilts, these quilts.”
This quote from Dee reflects the theme connected with the title of this story. She is dismayed that Maggie and her mother would use the quilts everyday, despite their functionality. Dee views the quilts as remnants of a culture that is dying or already dead. Note Alice Walker’s use of both Dee’s given name and her name of reinvention. In this moment, Dee is not Dee, but Wangero - she ceases to understand the heritage in her hands. Dee rejects factory made quilts that Mama offers her: she cannot exploit them. For Mama, the quilts represent both a practical and emotional consciousness that should remain above Dee’s manipulation.
"I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue."
The difference in Mama's and Dee's responses illustrates how mama views both their relationship and their personalities. In particular, her daydream highlights Dee's deepest-held desire to be a part of a world she was not born into. Mama knows Dee wishes she had a different upbringing, and Mama's fantasy of what she would look like in this setting reflects Dee's idealized version of self.
She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know.
Mama is remembering earlier days when Dee would return from boarding school in Augusta and patronize her and Maggie with stories of other people and knowledge beyond the scope of their experience. Should Mama or Maggie begin to grasp what she was talking about, Dee would “shove us away at just the moment like dimwits". Instead of celebrating Dee’s keen intellect, both, Mama and Maggie felt only intimidation and anxiety.
“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.”
Mama reflects on what Maggie thinks of her big sister. Maggie marvels at Dee’s tenacious insistence to challenge the world on her terms. The audacity of a rural Black girl from Georgia not accepting to be defined by anyone is both a blessing and a curse for both Maggie and Mama. Dee would fight her reality, even stepping over her own family to become something else. Dee would take the word “no” as a challenge: Dee would become the girl who would tell people “no” instead of the girl submitting to it.
“In real life I am a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands. In the winter I wear flannel nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day. I can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man. My fat keeps me hot in zero weather.”
Mama has been daydreaming about herself in a different image. In her daydream, she is on the Johnny Carson show slimmer in weight and lighter in skin color. This is how, she interprets through Dee's desires, a black woman gains acceptance in the white world. Mama returns to reality and describes what she really looks like. Her description of herself fits the stereotype of a farmwoman who can easily do the work of a man. There is, however, beauty in her practicality. Her body type and work ethic enable her to survive and provide for her family. Mama is matter of fact about her appearance rather than judgmental or dismissive, which belies her practicality. She knows there is no use wishing to be something you are not.
“Dee next. A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun...The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it.“
To Mama, Dee’s dress is as foreign to her as the latest fashions out of Milan. Dee’s newly found sense of Black heritage means nothing to Mama. Ironically Dee's idea of “African heritage” only objectifies her real heritage as inferior. At first Mama finds her dress tacky and too bright, but as Dee approaches, Mama reappraises the outfit. In this paragraph, the complexity of their meeting is revealed. Dee's dress is loud but pretty, she is impertinent yet self-assured, she revels in an idealized version of self while betraying her heritage. Dee is not "good" or "bad", though Mama is, rightfully, critical of her daughter. The three women are complex and layered, leaving the reader to decide how best to interpret one's identity.
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.
Majot themes in the story, Everyday Use, include race, heritage, family, home, and tradition. For an indepth look at the story's themes, check out GradeSaver's theme page in the study guide for the unit.