“Everyday Use” is narrated by a woman who describes herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” She has enjoyed a rugged farming life in the country and now lives in a small, tin-roofed house surrounded by a clay yard in the middle of a cow pasture. She anticipates that soon her daughter Maggie will be married and she will be living peacefully alone.
The story opens as the two women await a visit from the older daughter, Dee, and a man who may be her husband—her mother is not sure whether they are actually married. Dee, who was always scornful of her family’s way of life, has gone to college and now seems almost as distant as a film star; her mother imagines being reunited with her on a television show such as “This Is Your Life,” where the celebrity guest is confronted with her humble origins. Maggie, who is not bright and who bears severe burn scars from a house fire many years before, is even more intimidated by her glamorous sibling.
To her mother’s surprise, Dee arrives wearing an ankle-length, gold and orange dress, jangling golden earrings and bracelets, and hair that “stands straight up like the wool on a sheep.” She greets them with an African salutation, while her companion offers a Muslim greeting and tries to give Maggie a ceremonial handshake that she does not understand. Moreover, Dee says that she has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, because “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” Dee’s friend has an unpronounceable name, which the mother finally reduces to “Hakim-a-barber.” As a Muslim, he will not eat the pork that she has prepared for their meal.
Whereas Dee had been scornful of her mother’s house and possessions when she was younger (even seeming happy when the old house burned down), now she is delighted by the old way of life. She takes photographs of the house, including a cow that wanders by, and asks her mother if she may have the old butter churn whittled by her uncle; she plans to use it as a centerpiece for her table. Then her attention is captured by two old handmade quilts, pieced by Grandma Dee and quilted by the mother and her own sister, known as Big Dee. These quilts have already been promised to Maggie, however, to take with her into her new marriage. Dee is horrified: “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts!” she says, “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”
Although Maggie is intimidated enough to surrender the beloved quilts to Dee, the mother feels a sudden surge of rebellion. Snatching the quilts from Dee, she offers her instead some of the machine-stitched ones, which Dee does not want. Dee turns to leave and in parting tells Maggie, “It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it.” Maggie and her mother spend the rest of the evening sitting in the yard, dipping snuff and “just enjoying.”
"Everyday Use" is a widely studied and frequently anthologized short story by Alice Walker. It was first published in 1973 as part of Walker's short story collection In Love and Trouble.
The short story is told in first person by "Mama", an African-American woman living in the Deep South with one of her two daughters. The story follows the differences between Mrs. Johnson and her shy younger daughter Maggie, who both still adhere to traditional black culture in the rural South, and her educated, successful daughter Dee, or "Wangero" as she prefers to be called, who takes a different route to reclaiming her cultural identity.
A film version was released in 2005.
The story opens on Mama waiting in the yard for her eldest daughter, Dee’s, return. She reflects on the differences between Dee and Maggie, her youngest daughter, and knows that Maggie will be anxious around Dee and self-conscious. Maggie was burned in a house fire that happened more than a decade ago, where Mama carried her out in her arms as Dee watched the house burn. The narrator continues to paint a picture of Maggie as helpless and rather awkward, whereas Dee is beautiful and seems to have had an easier time in life.
Dee left home to pursue an education in Augusta, afforded to her by Mama and the community’s fund raising efforts. Mama never attended school past second grade, and Maggie has a very limited reading ability, so Dee’s education is a stark difference and Mama seems to feel that starkness, commenting, “like dimwits, we seemed about to understand”. Mama discusses the physical differences between the three: her own manly looks; Maggie’s timid disposition; and Dee’s own nice hair, full figure, and stylish way of dress.
When Dee finally arrives, she has also brought with her a man who Mama refers to as Hakim-a-barber. Dee takes photos of Mama and Maggie in front of the house, and the greetings are stiff and unfamiliar. Dee informs her mother that she has now changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo in order to protest the oppression and cultural white washing Black Americans faced. Mama rejects this, telling Dee she was named after her Aunt Dicie, who in turn was named after Grandma Dee, and that the name went on through the generations. Dee gives Mama the option of not using her new name and Mama concludes that Hakim-a-barber must be related to a family of Muslims down the road. Hakim-a-barber says he accepts some of the doctrines of his beef-raising family, but is not interested in farming or herding as a profession.
Mama does not know whether Hakim-a-barber and Dee are married, and does not ask. Hakim-a-barber has a special diet to follow, but Dee digs in to the food Mama made. She begins asking for things around the house, like the top of a butter churn, and eventually she asks for a quilt as well. This quilt in particular is one that Mama had promised to Maggie, and Dee’s persistence frustrates Mama and they get into an argument. Dee feels that by using the quilt as a normal item, in “everyday use”, the quilt will be ruined and the cultural importance lost. Mama would rather the item be used practically by her family and be ruined than have it sit on a shelf, and as Dee readies to leave, she tells Mama that Mama doesn’t understand her own heritage. She adds that Mama should try and improve, and that there is a new path for Black Americans to follow. Maggie and Mama sit in the yard after watching them drive off until bedtime.
- Dee – She is an educated African-American woman and the eldest daughter of Mama. She seeks to embrace her cultural identity through changing her name from Dee to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo (an African name), marrying a Muslim man, and acquiring artifacts from Mama's house to put on display, an approach that puts her at odds with Mama and Maggie. She is very physically beautiful and is described as having a great sense of style.
- Mama – She is described as a "large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands." She enjoys her lifestyle (especially milking cows) and did not receive an education past second grade.
- Maggie – Described by Mama as dull and unattractive, the youngest daughter Maggie has burn scars and marks from the burning down of their prior home, and is very nervous and self-conscious because of it. She leads a simple and traditional life with her mother in the South while her elder sister, Dee, is away at school. She has very limited reading ability, unlike her sister Dee.
- Hakim-a-barber - Dee’s partner, he is referred to as "Asalamalakim", which is a Muslim greeting, by Mama throughout the story because he is Muslim. Eventually he tells Mama to call him "Hakim-a-barber" due to Mama being unable to pronounce his actual name. He is short and stocky and has long hair that reaches his waist and a long, bushy beard. We do not learn in the story whether they are dating, engaged, or married.
One of the primary themes of "Everyday Use," is the idea of a person's relationship to her or his culture. In the story, Dee's mother remained close to immediate family traditions, while Dee herself chose to search more deeply into her African roots. Because of her different mindset, she does not have the same ideals as Mama and Maggie, particularly in regard to cultural preservation and the best way to go about it. In Mama’s mind, Maggie learning to make her own quilt is preserving the culture – in Dee’s, it is preserving the quilt itself.
In the essay "'Everyday Use' and the Black Power Movement" by Barbara T. Christian, the story is compared to slavery and the black power movement. The essay relates certain aspects of the story to slavery to get a better understanding of "Everyday Use" and the background. The characters in the story focus a lot on African culture and heritage. Traditional African clothing is described throughout the story, and this is a symbol of the family's heritage. The mentioning of changing names relates back to slavery as well, the characters were trying to forget about their slave names, and think of more traditional names to remember their culture and "[affirm] their African roots."
On the other hand, in the essay "'Everyday Use' as a Portrait of the Artist" by Mary Helen Washington, the story is looked at from a more artistic and cultural perspective. The essay describes Dee as an artist who "returns home...in order to collect the material," which indicates that Dee comes home for a deeper understanding of her African culture. Although she changes her name from Dee to a more Native African name and wears African clothing, she lacks real knowledge of her culture. Because of this, Mama chooses Maggie over Dee to take the quilt, because Maggie shows more appreciation and knowledge of their culture and as she said in the story was involved in the making of those quilts whereas Dee had no part in.
One symbol found in this short story is the quilt. The quilt itself is a very meaningful item in the sense that it has history on it. It includes clothes that Dee's great grandma used to wear and pieces of uniforms that Dee's great grandpa wore during the Civil War. However, it also symbolizes value in Negro-American experience. Walker including the fact of the Civil War gives a sense of history that enhances the African-American history. The quilt additionally adds to the idea of creative activities women came up with to pass down history from generation to generation as a part of their heritage.
Another symbol found in “Everyday Use” is the yard. The yard plays an important role in the story, and is described as “an extended living room”. Mama and Maggie have both tidied up the yard in preparation of Dee’s visit, and sit out in the yard for hours, even after Dee’s departure. The yard seems to be a place to think for Mama, where she can imagine herself being someone better than she actually is, but also remember just how much she has done for her family.
In critical readings of this article, the largest trend regarding this story has been to criticize Dee and the way she goes about her personal cultural reclamation. However, Matthew Mullins argues in his essay, Antagonized by the Text, Or, It Takes Two to Read Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, that this perspective isn’t necessarily fair. He found in reading and teaching the text, Dee was universally a disliked character, saying that in an epiphany he found in his defense of Dee rather a pitying attitude and concluding that “it was impossible to see how anyone could truly ‘like’ Dee”. This, however, he goes on to point out as not being a direct result of Dee’s actions alone, but rather the framing of her actions in the story. He argues that the text itself is what antagonizes the reader to grow this dislike of Dee: “The first-person narrative voice, the fact that Mrs. Johnson [Mama] is both narrator and character, has an immediate and forceful effect upon our perception of Dee.” Mullins backs this up by quoting another scholar, Wayne Booth, who said in his work The Rhetoric of Fiction, “No narrator […] is simply convincing: he is convincingly decent or mean, brilliant or stupid, informed, intelligent, or muddled. […] we usually find our emotional and intellectual reactions to him as a character affects our reactions to the events he relates.” Mullins points out that if Dee herself, or even Maggie, were the narrators of the story, we would come away with a completely different perspective on probably all of the characters. “The text actively prevents us from identifying with Dee,” and this perspective has shaped the scholarly resources on this text since it came out.
Joe Sarnowski, in his article Destroying to Save: Idealism and Pragmatism in Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’, also points out this discrepancy but taking it one step further, arguing that even though it would be naïve to claim Dee doesn’t have faults, she, “more than any other character in the story, identifies and pursue corrective measures against the oppression of African-American society and culture.” Her fault, Sarnowski says, is in not realizing how idealism and pragmatism are “intertwined” and how “privileging one undermines both”.
- Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." The Story and Its Writer. Ed. Anna Charters. Compact 8th edn. Boston: Bedfor/St. Martin's, 2011. 852–858. Print.
- Whitsitt, Sam. "In Spite of It All: A Reading of Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use.'" African American Review 34.3 (2000): 443. Web. October 24, 2011.
- "Everyday Use." sparknotes.com. sparknotes, n.d. Web. October 24, 2011.
- ^"Everyday Use Themes - eNotes.com". eNotes. Retrieved 2016-11-03.
- ^Christian, Barbara (1994). "everyday use" and the black power movement. Pearson. pp. 492–494. ISBN 0-13-458638-7.
- ^"SparkNotes: Everyday Use: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols". www.sparknotes.com. Retrieved 2017-04-05.
- ^Mullins, Matthew (May 2013). [search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2013392796&site=ehost-live "Antagonized by the Text, Or, It Takes Two to Read Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'"] . Journal of the Southern Comparative Literature Association. 37: 37–53. Retrieved November 28, 2017.
- ^Sarnowski, Joe (2012). [search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2012582914&site=ehost-live "Destroying to Save: Idealism and Pragmatism in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'"] . Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature. 48 (3): 269–286. Retrieved November 28, 2017.