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The story Everyday Use is strategically told through the eyes of the main character Mama, whom Walker uses for several reasons. Mama, self described as "a large, big-boned woman with rough, man working hands," plays both the mother and father figure to the girls, Dee and Maggie. Mama is used to tell the story so that the description of her daughters seems impartial over her children. Through any mother's eyes, it is implied that she loves both her children equally, but during the description of the old house burning down, the reader can conclude that Dee is not Mama's favorite child. In this detailed description that Walker uses Mama to strategically set Dee as the antagonist of the story.
Depicted early on as almost ungrateful to her mother, Dee arrives a very changed person. While Dee is different from her family, both educationally and socially, she arrives with a new heritage and ultimately symbolizes the growth and separation from one's true heritage. From the moment she steps out of the car in, "a dress so loud it hurts my eyes. (111)" it is made clear that this is not the Dee that Maggie and Mama are familiar with. Upon Dee's arrival, she takes pictures to remember the place she had come from. "Only after a series of photos, of carefully lined up frames, of pictures that do not include her, does she then include herself in the scene. (Whitsitt)"; by not placing herself in the pictures, Dee is already enforcing distance from the life that once belonged to her. "... Dee's proclamation of her new name as a turning point in the story, the point at which Dee has pushed her mother too far.... Dee is rejecting her family and identity... (Farrell)." Dee has killed off all aspects of her old life and has moved on by referring to herself by her Muslim name Wangero.
Arriving with Dee is a man by the name of Asalamalakim, who later asks to be referred to as Hakim-a-barber. Though Hakim-a-barber plays a small role in Alice Walker's story, an many ways he symbolizes the newfound life Wangero has chosen to live. He is the understood force for the reader that keeps Wangero from returning to her past. This is noted from the moment he steps out of the car with Wangero. While they both greet Mama and Maggie with a Muslim salutation, Hakim-a-barber tries to enforce his unfamiliar way of shaking hands on Maggie. Although Maggie does not comply with Hakim-a-barber's gesture, he still tries to make her understand, until finally concluding that it is useless and giving up. He also chips in with a smart remark of, "well, there you are, (Walker 111)" after Mama explains who Dee is named after, as if believing that he is right in the thought that Mama really doesn't know where their family comes from. During dinner, Wangero eats everything, for it reminds her of old times at home and who she once was, but Walker notes that Hakim-a-barber refuses to eat the collards and wouldn't eat the pork for under Muslim religion, it was unclean. Even these simple actions affect Dee and her interaction with her mother and sister, for Hakim-a-barber is ever-present during her time with her family, thus a reminder of who she has become.
It is during dinner that Wangero's real reason for visiting her family is finally revealed, when she slowly begins asking for kitchen items. While the kitchen articles hold a significant meaning to the family, because Dee has stepped away from her heritage, Mama feels like she no longer deserves them. After Wangero makes a the comment of, "I can use the churn top as a centerpiece for the alcove table and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher," (Walker 112). Mama decides that Wangero isn't worthy of having the kitchen items. These items have been handed down over the years from generation to generation and have developed to be more meaningful as the years have gone by. To Mama, these items aren't to be used as decoration, but just as one's heritage, should be put to use every day. Wangero's want to show off the kitchen items symbolize today's want to push one's heritage to the side. While Mama has made the decision to not let her eldest daughter take the kitchen items, Wangero still insists on taking something with her and moves on to a precious handmade quilt. Wangero's persistence represents the urge for society to continue to embrace the desire to "preserve" the past by means of placing items on display. The quilt, symbolizes all aspects of the family's past. "The visitor rightly recognizes the quilts as part of a fragile heritage, but she fails to see the extent to which she herself has traduced that heritage," (Cowart). It's design is made from dresses that Grandma used to wear, along with Grandpa's paisley shirts, and pieces of Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform from the Civil War. All these fabrics hold some sort of special meaning beyond that they were used to make these special quilts. This handmade quilt symbolizes the family, which was to be passed down from generation to generation, not as an ornament, but a daily reminder of the past. It is noted by Mama that she had offered a quilt to Wangero when she left for college, but denied her by informing Mama that the quilts were "old fashioned, out of style," (Walker 113). Walker's mentioning of Mama remembering that she had offered Wangero a quilt previously, reminds the reader that Mama has tried to make things 'good enough' for her daughter's lavish taste.
Wangero walking away empty handed represents several things. The note that Walker makes that Wangero is walking away from her family, parallels society's ability to easily let go of their past. It is easy to walk away and ignore something when one no longer desires or shows a care for it. Mama's refusal to allow Wangero to take the quilt and kitchen items symbolizes the few people who wish for heritage to be preserved by living it out day to day as opposed to hanging it on a wall to be looked upon. Mama understands the difference between loving and leaving one's heritage. The note that Mama and Maggie continue after Wangero's departure as if nothing happened, represents the people in society who will not change. These rare people who live their lives with such passion and pride in their heritage refuse to be reformed, which is hard to find among member of society today. It is so easy to forget one's past and what makes one' who they are.
Mama's decision in giving the quilts to Maggie is based upon her family values, and represents the continuance of family traditions. "...when Mama hands Maggie the quilts from Dee and gives them to Maggie, she confirms her younger daughter's self worth: metaphorically, she gives Maggie her voice. (Tuten)" Maggie has lived her whole life behind Dee's shadow and almost has grown a certain fear for her, while Mama tries to stand up for Maggie. Mama is aware that Maggie has always been appreciative of her life, even though she could be angry about the fire and her scarred body. Maggie never learned to read and never left to go to college. All these things that Dee strived to accomplish, Maggie did not. Maggie has instead become content and has made the most of her simple life, with the intentions of marrying a nice man, and the want to start a family. While Maggie is a smaller character in the story, she is the most important in the end. Maggie is the character who will continue the family's true tradition of hand sewing items and will continue with pride in her family's black heritage. Maggie symbolizes awareness in that the family's name and traditions will live on through her children, despite Dee's ungratefulness in her own heritage.
While the symbolism Alice Walker uses is quite intricate, it is visible throughout the story and allows the reader to conclude that heritage should be preserved, but in the act of living it day to day.