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Everyday Use | Context

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African American Heritage

In the 1960s many African Americans were part of a growing movement in which they sought to reclaim cultural traditions from Africa as they rejected their heritage in white America as a protest against their oppression and lack of rights. This renewed interest in African roots and tradition led to the term black pride. African clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles became increasingly fashionable and popular. In "Everyday Use" Dee and Hakim-a-barber exemplify this movement in their appearance and attitudes. Dee has transformed her life and identity with the changing times and encourages her sister to do the same. As she tells Maggie, "It's really a new day for us."

The Black Arts movement, in effect from roughly 1965–75, fostered African American writers, artists, musicians, and theater performances that celebrated African American voices and values. The movement sought to establish a new cultural identity for blacks in the United States, one based on self-worth and personal empowerment. Dee's desire for family heirlooms in "Everyday Use" echoes this movement; art by African Americans is trendy to her, and Dee, as the epitome of trendiness, wants these "artistic" objects as status symbols to show off in her home.

Hakim-a-barber exemplifies another movement of the time: the adoption of Islam by African American men. National figures such as Malcolm X made headlines for the Nation of Islam, an activist group that supported racial pride for African Americans. Well-known followers such as the boxer Muhammed Ali (formerly named Cassius Clay) brought further attention to the movement, which gained tens of thousands of members in the 1960s.

Civil Rights in the 1960s

"Everyday Use" takes place in the rural South, most likely Georgia, in the late 1960s or very early 1970s. These years saw great social and political upheaval in the region and the entire country as well. New voices such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X demanded full equality for African Americans, giving hope and inspiration to people across the United States. Landmark events such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped bring about many gains for African Americans.

However, life for blacks in the South was still viewed as far from equitable. Blacks had higher unemployment rates than whites, and many blacks were still prohibited from voting. In some areas of the South, segregation of businesses and schools still existed, and black students were far less likely to complete high school or college. For many African American residents of the Black Belt, a region stretching across the South with large black populations in many states, a life of rural poverty was still the norm.

Quilting

Quilting as a craft has a long history in African American culture. Handmade quilts often incorporated traditional African textiles and techniques, knowledge which came to the American continent with the transport of slaves. During the era of slavery, female slaves held quilting parties that helped cement ties of kinship and mutual support during their hard lives. Such gatherings allowed women to socialize and speak freely on their own terms. As in "Everyday Use" these women without resources of other kinds created quilts that were both beautiful and practical by repurposing materials at hand, from scraps and rags to old blankets and clothing.

Through the years African American quilters often have used their craft to record family history, such as births, marriages, and events of daily life by embroidering scenes onto the fabric or by piecing together representative pictures. Some quilts, such as the log cabin design mentioned in "Everyday Use," even served as banners to mark safe houses for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.

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