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Everyday Use | Study Guide

Alice Walker

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Everyday Use | Themes



Though Mama, Maggie, and Dee come from the same family, Dee has very different ideas about heritage than Mama and Maggie do. Dee rejects the American part of her heritage because African Americans have been oppressed; instead, she focuses solely on her African origins. She claims "Dee" is dead; she associates the name with this history of oppression and wants nothing to do with it. She takes for herself an African name instead, confirming her personal heritage in Africa. This action effectively wipes away her American heritage as if it never existed. It gives no acknowledgment of or gratitude to her current family members or ancestors, thus making her desire for her grandmother's quilts seem all the more inappropriate.

Mama and Maggie, on the other hand, also embrace their American heritage as well as their past. They honor their immediate ancestors, keeping their memory alive through family heirlooms and passed-down skills. Mama's knowledge of her ancestors extends back to the Civil War, and from there she begins her personal history—for them American rather than African. Maggie learned quilting from Grandma Dee and carries on the tradition. Mama and Maggie are also content to live the same modest, rural life their predecessors lived, a decision Dee cannot remotely understand.


Throughout the story, Dee does not want to associate with her own family; she is embarrassed by her family's poverty and lack of refinement. She has separated her life from her family as much as she possibly can, returning only for occasional visits. Dee once wrote Mama she would "never bring her friends" to the family home. She also urges Maggie to make a better life for herself by leaving behind what Dee sees as an outdated mode of living. As she explains to Maggie, "It is a new day now." For Dee the day of hand-stitched quilts is long gone; she believes people should live in more modern ways because they can. For Mama and Maggie the day of hand-stitched quilts is still alive, and since they are content with their lives, they have no reason to leave it behind.

Dee is dissociated not only from her immediate family but also from her ancestral roots in the South. She rejects the American part of her heritage, turning to Africa as her adopted ancestral homeland instead. In doing so she rejects the strong, capable women who have passed down their traits and skills through the family lineage. She discounts the named, known women of her family after whom she is named, thus continuing the tradition, in favor of unnamed, unknown ancestors from another continent entirely.

And yet Dee wants to grab onto family heirlooms as a way of proving her heritage. Objects like the quilts show the hard work her ancestors put into simple, everyday living. For Dee they are a visual reminder of an impoverished past that she, personally, has overcome. Her desire to display these objects shows pride but not necessarily pride in her heritage; rather it is pride in her own achievements and in the advancement of African Americans in general. It is as if Dee wants to display the heirlooms as a way of saying, "This is where we came from, but I and we, we are better than that now." Even though she wants to possess the objects, she is no longer connected to them and their meanings. Dee is far removed from her heritage, viewing it from a distance like a work of art; Mama and Maggie live it every day.

Authenticity versus Superficiality

Dee demonstrates superficiality throughout the story, beginning with her focus on outward appearances. "Dee wanted nice things," Mama recalls, describing the clothes she wore in high school and how "at sixteen, she had a style of her own: and knew what style was." Dee is aware of how the world judges people on the basis of appearance, and she carefully cultivates hers to send the message she wants people to receive. She clearly favors style over substance.

On the contrary, Mama and Maggie prefer substance to style. They live authentically in that they do not pretend or aspire to be something they are not. They live in a poor house with worn furnishings and wear simple, functional clothes. They cook traditional, substantial foods no one would consider fashionable but that they like. They do crafts, like quilting, that are useful and practical rather than merely decorative. They appreciate their down-to-earth heritage, enjoying the simple comforts of the life they lead. Dee could never be happy in such a life; she strives for things she views as better, or more fashionable and costly: better clothes, a better home, a better education.

The quilts Dee wants illustrate the differences between the women's attitudes. Dee, who once called the quilts "old-fashioned, out of style" and rejected them, now wants to show them off in her home to impress others. Her motivation is superficial. Mama and Maggie, however, love the quilts because of their history, and using the quilts in everyday life is a way of authentically honoring and remembering their ancestors.

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