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Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” tells a story of a mother and her two daughters who have different ideas about their heritage. The mother, Mama Johnson, narrates the story and tells about the day her daughter Dee came back to visit one day from college and how Dee wants to take some items back with her. Dee has different views than Mama Johnson and Maggie do about their family heritage. Walker, author of “Everyday Use” describes a young adult daughter named Dee who doesn’t realize the importance of her heritage, but after attending college comes back to visit Mama Johnson and Maggie, and all of a sudden superficially realizes where she came from. Dee used to try to educate Maggie and Mama Johnson by reading to them whether they wanted Dee to read to them or not. This is one way she was trying to change Mama Johnson and Maggie to be more like the way she thinks and talks. Dee’s younger fragile sister Maggie, scarred by a house fire, and Mama Johnson, a single mother who works like a man, live together in the rural south on a pasture where cows roam free. Mama Johnson makes a living from selling cattle. Mama Johnson daydreams of the way she believes Dee would want her to be and how she would want Dee to be when it comes to their beliefs in heritage (Walker 109). Mama Johnson makes the most important statement of the story without using words but actions when she takes the heirloom quilt from Dee and hands it to Maggie. Both daughters are from the same family but yet they have their own beliefs about their heritage. Maggie the one that is fragile and uneducated proves to have the right concept of their heritage which is proven through a symbolism of a quilt. Walker uses everyday items to symbolize the story’s focus on the value of plain objects and what they mean to Mama Johnson and her two different daughters: Dee, the educated one who wants no part of what her life used to be and Maggie, fragile and uneducated but knows the true concept of their family heritage. Mama Johnson realizes which daughter deserves the quilt.
Dee Johnson believes that she is confirming her African American heritage by changing the name she was given and by changing the way she dresses to confirm her African American heritage: and she wants the quilt for the same reason. Dee is described as “shallow”, “condescending” and “manipulative and lacks an understanding of her heritage (Farrell 179). Dee didn’t have very many friends and the friends she did have were furtive boys in pink and nervous girls that worshiped how she looked and spoke (Walker 110). Dee can talk to anyone in the eye without hesitation unlike Mama Johnson and her younger sister Maggie. Mama Johnson was able to send Dee to college in Augusta with help from the Church (Walker 110). When Dee came back to visit Mama Johnson and Maggie she was a different person. She wore a loud African dress down to the ground and greets Mama Johnson in Arabic (Walker 109). The dress she wore represented her new identity. Dee wanted to show Mama Johnson and Maggie her new and revised identity. Dee brought a Polaroid Camera with her to take pictures of Mama Johnson and Maggie. Dee takes several photos of them and made sure the house was included in the pictures. Maggie was cowering behind Mama Johnson while Dee took the pictures. Dee even takes a picture of a cow that had wandered to the house. Mama Johnson was surprised that Dee was even taking pictures of them and the house. Mama Johnson figured that Dee would want to burn the house down like the first house did because Dee hated it as much. After Mama Johnson calls Dee by her name, Dee informs Mama Johnson that she has changed her name to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” an African name because she couldn’t bear any longer being named after the people who oppress her (Walker 111). Dee told Mama Johnson “Dee was dead” (Walker 111). Dee talks about the handmade benches, the churn top Uncle Buddy whittled out of a tree, and the dash her other Uncle Henry made that are in Mama Johnson’s kitchen. Most importantly she asks for the heirloom quilts that were made from scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn over fifty years ago and bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s Paisley shirts. There was one small piece that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War (Walker 113). While all these items were there when she lived at home it’s now that she realizes the value these items have and Mama Johnson had even offered Dee to take one of the quilts when she left for college but Dee did not want the quilt at that time because Dee thought the quilts were out of style (Walker 113). Mama Johnson promised the quilts to Maggie as a wedding gift. Dee insisted on taking the items back with her when she left. Dee is rejecting her family heritage and identity by changing her name but yet still wants the objects that represent her heritage but for the wrong reasons. Dee seems to try to get rid of everything that represents her family values including her name. Dee is not like Maggie.
Maggie is described by Mama Johnson as being a somewhat frightened animal that accepts losing and backs down on any situation she sees a threat (Gruesser 184). Maggie is completely the opposite of her older sister Dee. “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, ture o envy and awe” (Walker 109). Walker writes how Maggie will act until Dee leaves back t college. Maggie is also described by Mama Johnson as a lame animal ignorant enough to be kind to everyone even if they do her wrong (Gruesser 184). The house fire left Maggie scarred for life. Maggie’s scars run deeper than just physical wounds (Walker 109). Maggie was perhaps burned trying to save the very quilts Dee covets” (Gruesser 184). The house fire had no affect on Dee. Unlike Dee, Maggie has a limited use of language (Tuten 127). When Maggie heard Dee ask for the heirloom quilts she was upset because she knew Mama Johnson would never tell Dee “no” (Tuten 126). Maggie told Mama Johnson to let Dee have the quilts and she would remember Grandmother Dee without them. Maggie was showing that she did not need an object or item to remember where she came from.
Mama Johnson realized at that moment that Dee did not deserve the heirloom quilt. “Mama Johnson does two things that she has never, amazingly enough, done before: she hugs Maggie and she says “no” to Dee.” (Gruesser 185). By Mama Johnson choosing to give the quilt that represents their heritage to Maggie, it gave Mama Johnson and Maggie a voice they never thought they had. Dee wanted the quilts for the wrong reason because it was now fashionable. She didn’t want the quilts because it represented her heritage. “She wants the photographs -and presently the churn lid, the dasher and the quilts-for purposes of display, reminders that she no longer has to live in such a house, care for such a cow, have daily intercourse with such a mother and sister” (Cowart 175). Dee only wanted the heirloom objects to display them in an artistic way and not for everyday use. Dee did not want Maggie to have them because Maggie would ruin them by using them every day and Dee thought they needed to be preserved. Mama Johnson felt they should be used because she had them put away for so long that it was time someone put them to ever day use (Walker 113). Dee left upset and shouting how they just did not understand their heritage when it was Dee herself that lost sight of the real value of her heritage.
“Certainly the quilts over which Wangero and her mother quarrel represent a heritage vastly more personal and immediate than the intellectual and deracinated daughter can see; indeed, they represent a heritage she has already discarded, for she no longer shares a name with those whose lives, in scraps of cast-off clothing, the quilts transmute” (Cowart 179).
After Dee left Mama Johnson and Maggie sat on the porch enjoying a dip of snuff until it was time to go in the house and go to bed (Walker 114). Although each character in the story is from the same heritage, some will have different views of it, and Mama Johnson realizes which one of her daughters deserves the quilt that symbolizes their heritage. Maggie knows how to quilt and could make her own, it was what the quilt and giving it to Maggie represented what mattered to Mama Johnson.
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