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Everyday Use | Symbols

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Quilts

In "Everyday Use" quilts represent the creativity, skill, and resourcefulness of African American women. Women like Grandma Dee used and reused whatever material they had at hand to create functional, beautiful items. Quilts also represent the Johnson family heritage in particular. The quilts in the story include pieces of fabric from items belonging to ancestors and relatives nearer the present time, including Grandma Dee's dresses, Grandpa Jarrell's paisley shirts, and Great-Grandpa Ezra's Civil War uniform.

Finally, quilts invite comparison of the different attitudes the main characters display toward their family heritage and how to honor it. While Dee wishes to display the quilts as a way of preserving and "showing off" her history, Mama and Maggie feel they can better honor their ancestors by using the quilts in the way they were intended: as a part of everyday life. In fact they have learned the art of quilting and will continue to preserve the tradition, whereas with Dee hanging the quilts on her wall, the tradition will end in a sterile fashion, as in a museum.

Hands

Hands represent the hard work women do to survive and improve their lives. The women of the Johnson family have a history of making something out of nothing, bringing comfort and beauty to daily life through their skill and determination. Mama has "rough, man-working hands," a testament to the difficult physical labor she has done all her life, from butchering animals to raking the hard clay of her barren, sandy yard. Maggie's hands, scarred from the fire, may not be beautiful, but they are nonetheless useful and productive; Maggie quilts and helps with work around the house, from doing dishes to raking the yard. Grandma Dee stitched quilts by hand, a fact that amazes citified Dee, who never learned to quilt or use her hands for traditional work.

When Mama observes Hakim-a-barber trying to shake a reluctant Maggie's hand, she notes he "wants to shake hands but wants to do it fancy." This observation contrasts the two characters. Hard-working Maggie is uncomfortable with Hakim-a-barber, an educated, somewhat pretentious man who lives a life removed from physical labor; the characters exist in two different worlds.

Clothing

Alice Walker uses clothing to represent Dee's chosen identity as Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, a proud, modern, black woman who embraces her African, rather than her American, heritage. Unlike Maggie, who wears typical—and unfashionable, ill-matched—American clothes, a pink skirt and red blouse, Dee arrives for her visit in full African garb. The flowing dress, which drapes down to the ground, is not suited to the hot weather and is "so loud it hurts my eyes," according to Mama. The bright yellows and oranges "throw back the light of the sun," an allusion both to the hot sun of Africa and to Dee's own attitude: she shines proudly in her identity and wants the world to see her splendor. Gold is the precious metal of royalty, and Dee's gold earrings reflect her self-image as a powerful woman to be admired, much like royalty. The earrings, along with Dee's jangling bracelets, are flashy and impossible to ignore. Through her choice of clothing, Dee demands respect and attention.

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