Alice Walker, “Everyday Use”

Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology,

       Third Edition. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Summary of Work
A mother and her daughter Maggie are waiting for Dee, her oldest daughter, to come and visit. The mother sits waiting, thinking of Dee as a child. She remembers when the house burned down, and Dee was out by a gum tree while she had to carry Maggie, burned, from the house before it collapsed. Maggie’s arms and legs were severely burned from the incident, and she has scars. She remembers that Dee was always one for fashion and had always wanted an education. She would read to her mother and Maggie and be severe about them not learning or getting the point of what she read. She dated some men, but moved away when she got old enough. Now that she’s gone, Maggie reads to her, but she will end up marrying and leaving her mother to do what she will. Her mother is built big and strong, comparing herself to a man. She dreams that she is on the Johnny Carson Show where he reunites mother and daughter, but she knows that her dream is inaccurate because she is 100 pounds lighter and has lighter skin and looks the way she knows that her daughter wants her to look. She is quick and witty in her dream, but in reality she is none of those things but is happier milking cows, slaughtering pigs, and doing work of that kind.

When her daughter comes, she comes with a man in a car. She is dressed in a bright, long, dress and has gold earrings that reach her shoulders. The man is also fancy dressed and has long hair to his shoulders and a beard. They take pictures of them in the yard, always making sure to get the house in the picture. When her mother calls her Dee, Dee tells her that she’s given herself a new name, Wangero, because she doesn’t want to be named by her oppressors. When her mother mentions that she was actually named after her Aunt Dicie, the man asks about who named her and they try to get the mother to see that the heritage is that of oppressors, but the mother doesn’t get it. Wangero says it’s okay if she calls her Dee, but she insists on learning the new name since that’s what she wants to be called. After they eat, and Dee keeps commenting on the beauty of the old objects around her, Dee insists on taking the top of an old butter churn and a butter dish that have been whittled and passed down by family members. Then she goes to a chest and pulls out quilts that had been made by her grandmother. One is a Lone Star Quilt and one is a Walk the Garden Path quilt. When she says she wants them, her mother tells her that she was giving them to Maggie for her wedding. Dee gets upset and says that if she gives them to Maggie they will get ruined from everyday use, and that they should be hung up and looked at and kept in good condition. Maggie comes back in the room to say that Dee can have the quilts, and the mother says no, Maggie is having them, and she thinks back to when she offered Dee a quilt and she snidely refused to take one because they were dingy and old fashioned. She takes them out of Dee’s arms, gives them to Maggie, and tells Dee to take one of the other ones that she has. Dee is upset because she doesn’t want the ones that aren’t hand pieced, and she tells her sister and mother that they just don’t understand their heritage and leaves the house with the man she came with.

Brief Note on Themes
This short story deals with heritage and traditions and intentions. Dee represents the new black movement that focused on heritage from Africa to get away from the history of slavery, and at the same time celebrated black achievement and creation. This is why she is so focused on her family heirlooms despite having hated it all before. Yet she loses her family heritage by casting aside her name and refusing to participate in using the items she says she loves. She does not understand why they were created or why they should be used. This is particularly evident with the quilts. Dee misses the intentions behind the making of the quilts: they were meant to be used, not as artwork, and in the mother’s mind, they need to be used as such. The story also highlights the tensions between different lifestyles: Dee looks down on or even pities or condescends to her mother’s lifestyle and finds it quaint, worthy of photographs but not worth living; it’s a thing of the past or an artifact but not real life, which explains why Dee doesn’t want her mother to really live the life she does, and doesn’t want her sister to follow in a similar lifestyle.

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