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Everyday Use | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Everyday Use | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How is the theme of heritage addressed in "Everyday Use"?

Dee sees her heritage as originating in Africa and dismisses her American side because she associates it with oppression. She shows pride in her African heritage by adopting African customs. Dee uses an African greeting and has adopted an African name. Moreover, she follows African style in her clothing, jewelry, and hair. For Mama and Maggie, however, heritage is American. Everyday life for the two women is steeped in the Johnson family ancestors. Mama and Maggie use heirlooms passed down through the family, from the butter churn top carved by Uncle Buddy to Grandma Dee's butter dish. Maggie and Mama also carry on the family heritage of quilting, a skill Dee either never learned or considers too much work to spend time on. ("She did all this stitching by hand. Imagine!" says Dee of her grandmother, as if it is impossible to imagine anyone would do such a thing in the modern world.) The quilts are one symbol of the Johnson family heritage, which is partly the reason Mama makes sure they go to Maggie, who appreciates her own humble American ancestors.

What is Hakim-a-barber's role in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"?

Throughout the story, Hakim-a-barber serves as a "yes man" for Dee, approving and reinforcing what she says and does. Like Dee, he has planted roots in Africa and rejected his American ancestry; he uses foreign phrases and has turned to Islam. "Every once in a while he and Wangero sent eye signals over my head," says Mama when she notices him inspecting her. No doubt Dee has filled his head with her own opinions about her mother, and he appears to play along quite willingly. He is there to be Dee's appreciative audience, as he looks on when she points out her father's beautiful benches. When he speaks, he does so primarily to respond to a direct question or contribute to a conversation Dee is leading. Because Dee has rarely brought anyone home, Hakim-a-barber is obviously important to her. However, it is clear he is the secondary person in the relationship and unclear whether he is being shown as a genuine love interest, friend, husband, or just an African-inspired trophy.

Why is it hypocritical of Dee to ask for her Grandma Dee's quilts in "Everyday Use"?

On the surface Dee acts as though she admires the quilts for their craftsmanship and connection to her grandmother. However, throughout the story, Dee proves she cares less about her family and their history than she does about herself. She demonstrates little knowledge of the history behind the family heirlooms, unlike Maggie, who knows much more and rattles off facts about her aunt's first husband, the maker of the butter churn dash. Dee thinks the quilts are made of "dresses Grandma used to wear"; she is correct, but her knowledge tells only part of the story. Mama knows the pattern names and the women who pieced and sewed the quilts; she also knows the quilts contain scraps from at least three relatives. Dee has never shown interest in the quilts and in fact had turned down Mama's offer of one quilt when she went to college; however, both Mama and Maggie have been involved in quilting for years. Finally, and most significant, if Dee had truly admired her grandmother and wanted to keep her memory alive, she would not have given up the name Dee for Wangero. This act, above all, makes Dee a hypocrite in asking for the quilts made by her ancestors.

What useful skills does Mama have, and how do they relate to the symbol of hands in "Everyday Use"?

Mama's skills relate almost entirely to things she can do or make with her hands, which symbolize the hard work she and other women do to survive in a difficult world. Mama wears "overalls during the day," clothing that suggest she works outside doing dirty, physical labor on a daily basis. She lists many of the tasks she can do, such as raking the yard, butchering and cleaning livestock "as mercilessly as a man," breaking ice to wash clothes, and cooking over a fire. Many of these skills are traditionally men's tasks, which Mama has had to take on. Doing hard physical labor explains Mama's "rough, man-working hands." Yet Mama can use her hands for more delicate work like quilting, which requires precision and control rather than force.

How does Walker use sensory images in "Everyday Use" to describe the scene in which the Johnsons' house burns down?

Walker's use of imagery, language that evokes the senses, is haunting in this scene, as Mama describes Maggie at the time of the fire: "her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black paper flakes." The reader can easily visualize, smell, and almost feel the flames burning Maggie and destroying her clothing and body, just as Mama says she can sometimes still hear the fire and feel Maggie's arms clinging to her. With Maggie's eyes stretched open, Mama sees the flames reflecting in her daughter's eyes, adding a sense of terror. In contrast with Maggie's burning dress and hair, Dee's eyes are fixed on the blaze; there are no sensory images, nor is there sentiment, just unbroken concentration and satisfaction at a safe distance from her mother and sister, whose clothes are on fire.

What is the significance of the Johnsons' yard in "Everyday Use"?

The story begins and ends in the yard, establishing a circular structure. Mama explains how "A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know." She considers the yard as an "extended living room" and describe the hard, bare ground. All of these observations show the yard is not much to look at—it has no plants or flowers as other yards might—yet Mama and Maggie have made the best of their surroundings by keeping the yard neat and enjoying it as it is. Mama has made something out of nothing regarding the yard. She appreciates "the breezes that never come inside the house," and views the yard as a welcoming place where "anyone can come and sit." As an extension of the house, it is part of the family's heritage and Mama and Maggie's way of life. Its use gives a completeness to the story, although it is actually just an empty space. Meaning therefore does not necessarily depend on objects, important as they may be as symbols.

In "Everyday Use" how does Hakim-a-barber fail to make a good first impression with Mama and Maggie during his visit?

The first thing that Mama and Maggie notice about Hakim-a-barber is his appearance as he gets out of the car. His long, unkempt hair causes Maggie to groan in apprehension and disgust, "Uhnnnh." He greets the women with "Asalamalakim, my mother and sister," which is presumptuous, since he has never met them. Moreover, he does not actually introduce himself, so Mama thinks the Arabic greeting he uses is his name. Using a foreign greeting the women are unlikely to know is also pretentious. His failed handshake with Maggie shows he is oblivious to her body language, as he keeps trying even when Maggie continually pulls away. Later in the visit, Mama points out she does not know if Dee and Hakim-a-barber are married or not; his vague status does not speak well for him. He also turns his nose up at the pork and collards served for dinner, calling the meat "unclean," a thoughtless comment to make as a guest in the home, although the tenets of his religion do forbid eating pork. He could have been more gracious about the collard greens, however, and either eaten them or said something less offensive than that he doesn't eat them. As a character Hakim-a-barber doesn't have much to say for himself and mostly follows Dee's lead. Nothing he does is impressive, and thus he fails to make a good first impression on the people he is trying to show off in front of.

In "Everyday Use" how does the clothing Mama, Maggie, and Dee wear reflect their characters?

Each woman has a distinctive style of dressing in the story. Mama describes herself as wearing flannel nightgowns and overalls. These are practical and unfashionable items that characterize Mama as a big country woman unconcerned with fashion and trendiness and choosing clothing that suits her life and work. For the most part, she does a man's work and wears man's clothes. Maggie is still a bit more concerned with clothing and tries to look good for her sister's visit, asking, "How do I look, Mama?" If Mama has no use for fashion, Maggie has little sense of it. Her red shirt and pink skirt seem mismatched and unfashionable, reflecting Maggie's reclusiveness and lack of real interest in life outside her immediate surroundings. However, the stylish Dee arrives in a blaze of color and jewelry, showing off the latest trends in clothing, shoes, and accessories, reflecting her need to be noticed, admired, and at the cutting edge of fashion and urban living as she defines it.

What conflicts are evident in "Everyday Use": Individual versus Individual, Individual versus Self, Individual versus Nature, and/or Individual versus Society?

Aspects of each type of conflict appear in "Everyday Use": Individual versus Individual: Dee and Maggie are in conflict over who will get to keep the quilts. Individual versus Self: Both Mama and Maggie suffer from a lack of self-confidence and must learn to stand up for themselves against Dee's intimidating tactics. Individual versus Nature: Mama and Maggie make a tight living off the land and have had to tame the yard and pasture to provide for themselves. Individual versus Society: Dee's rejection of the American part of her heritage shows her opposition to the society that has oppressed her ancestors.

What is significant about the use of parentheses and brackets when Mama mentions Dee/Wangero's name in "Everyday Use"?

The use of "Dee (Wangero)" serves as a repeated reminder of Dee's rejection of her heritage. Initially Mama accepts Dee's new name without hesitation: "If that's what you want us to call you, we'll call you." After saying this Mama tries to use the name in her narration, such as when she says "I didn't ask, whether Wangero [Dee] had really gone and married him." However, she does have some confusion over the name and forgets to think of Dee as Wangero. After this incident Mama switches back to using "Dee (Wangero)," with "Dee" being force of habit and "(Wangero)" being a reminder to herself to try to use the new name. This happens several times in the narration, until the point at which Mama firmly decides to give the quilts to Maggie. After her decision she reverts to using just plain "Dee." While she may, in the future, call her daughter Wangero to honor her wishes, in Mama's mind her daughter will always remain Dee (unless she herself tires of the affectation). Also because her daughter visits so seldom, Wangero won't be there to remind her mother either.

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