“Everyday Use” is probably Walker’s most frequently anthologized short story. It stresses the mother-daughter bond and defines the African American woman’s identity in terms of this bond and other family relationships. It uses gentle humor in showing Dee/Wangero’s excess of zeal in trying to claim her heritage, and her overlooking of the truth of African American experience in favor of what she has read about it. Dee has joined the movement called Cultural Nationalism, whose major spokesman was LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). In fact, however, Dee’s understanding of the movement’s basics is flawed, and she is using bits of African lore rather than a coherent understanding of it. Walker doubtless intended this misinterpretation. The contrast is clear—the snuff-dipping, hardworking mother who tells the story has passed her true inheritance, not quilts but love, to the daughter who is not book-educated but who belongs to the tradition.
The speaker in this story is the mother of two very different girls, Maggie and Dee. Maggie has stayed home with her mother and lived an old-fashioned, traditional life, while Dee has gone off to school and become sophisticated. Dee comes home with a new name, Wangero, and a new boyfriend; she claims that she wants to take the family heirlooms along as a part of claiming her true identity as an African American. She especially wants the quilts, which she plans to display on the wall as artworks because of their fine handiwork. Maggie, on the other hand, had been promised the quilts for her marriage; she loved them because they reminded her of the grandmother who made them. Dee feels entitled to them, but the speaker chooses to give them to Maggie—not to show but, as Dee says scornfully, “for everyday use.” Dee sweeps off with her other trophies, and the mother and Maggie remain together, enjoying a heritage that is experience and memory, not things to put on display.