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Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" is a frequently anthologized short story of an African American family. The story focuses on mother-daughter bond and different opinions about family heritage. The family consists of a mother and her two daughters of opposite personality. Mama, Mrs. Johnson, narrates the story. Mama is an uneducated woman who has a heavy body and can do rough work like a man. She has enjoyed a rugged farming life in the country and now lives in a small house with her younger daughter, Maggie. Dee, Mama's elder daughter is a self-centered young woman who comes to visit her family. Dee's character is superficial and materialistic. She cares more about appearance than substance. Maggie is not a bright girl like Dee. She bears several burn scars from a house fire many years before. In "Everyday Use" Walker shows different points of view regarding culture and heritage through the characters of Mama, Maggie, and Dee.
Mama loves and respects her heritage. According to Mama, tradition is an important part to learning one's heritage. The quilts have a special meaning for Mama. The following quote illustrates how Mama admires her ancestors: "They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them" (Walker 466). Mama has a direct connection with those quilts, which shows the bond between Mama and her ancestors. Walker also uses a butter churn to show Mama's connection with her family. The following quote suggests how Mama recalls tiny details about the dasher:
You didn't even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the woodâ€¦.. It was beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash had lived. (Walker 466)
When Mama takes the dasher handle in her hands, she tries to feel the connection between her and those who used it before her. Mama finds history in her memories of people and places. She admires the benches because they were made by Dee's daddy. To mama, the name "Dee" is symbolic of family unity because it was the name of her sister, her mother and her grandmother (Ross). By giving the quilts to Maggie, Mama knows the connection of heritage will continue to exist in the future.
Maggie takes pleasure in memories and traditions like her mother. She appreciates the value of the family heritage. When the family is discussing the butter churn, Maggie gives details about her family history. "'Aunt Dee's first husband whittled the dash,' said Maggie so low you almost couldn't hear her. 'His name was Henry, but they called him Stash'" (Walker 466). Just like her mother, Maggie also admires her family heritage. Besides her shy and giving up nature, her strong will shows up when she argues with her sister about who will inherit the family quilts. Maggie shows her aggression by dropping plates and slamming the door when Dee tries to take the quilts which Mama has promised to Maggie. Later, she tries to win Dee's favor by giving up the quilts. Maggie's peaceful nature makes her surrender the beloved quilts to Dee (Ross).
The meaning of heritage is different for Dee than Mama and Maggie. She thinks of heritage as a materialistic object. For an example, she admires the benches' texture, not because her father made them. Also, Dee wants to make the lid of the butter churn into a centerpiece for her table, not because her uncle had made it. Dee changes her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. "Dee says 'I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me'" (Walker 464). Dee persists in seeing the names as little more than the galling reminder that African Americans have been denied their authentic names (Cowart 172). She does not want to be named after family members. "Wangero fails to see the mote in her own eye when she reproaches her mother and her sister for a failure to value their heritage-she, who wants only to preserve that heritage as the negative index to her own sophistication"(Cowart 175). Dee tells her mother and Maggie that they do not understand their heritage because they are planning to put the quilts into everyday use. Even though Dee is the one who is the most educated member of her family, she fails to understand her culture and family.
By contrasting views of family members in "Everyday Use," Alice Walker illustrates the importance of understanding one's own heritage and the people who carried it with them. Walker shows how one can find tradition and strength from the items of everyday use. The irony of this story is touching. Preserving the quilts is disrespectful because it fails to achieve the quilts' intended goal, which is to be used in daily life. Mama's decision to give those quilts to Maggie is appropriate, because keeping quilts in circulation in daily life keeps the family history alive.