Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The central theme of the story concerns the way in which an individual understands his present life in relation to the traditions of his people and culture. Dee tells her mother and Maggie that they do not understand their “heritage” because they plan to put “priceless” heirloom quilts to “everyday use.” The story makes clear that Dee is equally confused about the nature of her inheritance both from her immediate family and from the larger black tradition.
The matter of Dee’s name provides a good example of this confusion. Evidently, Dee has chosen her new name (“Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo”) to express solidarity with her African ancestors and to reject the oppression implied by the taking on of American names by black slaves. To her mother, the name “Dee” is symbolic of family unity; after all, she can trace it back to the time of the Civil War. To the mother, these names are significant because they belong to particular beloved individuals.
Dee’s confusion about the meaning of her heritage also emerges in her attitude toward the quilts and other household items. Although she now rejects the names of her immediate ancestors, she eagerly values their old handmade goods, such as the hand-carved benches made for the table when the family could not afford to buy chairs. To Dee, artifacts such as the benches or the quilts are strictly aesthetic objects. It never occurs to her that they, too, are symbols of oppression: Her...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
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In "Everyday Use," the contrast between Dee's beliefs and those of her mother and sister is emphasized by the different values the characters place on some old quilts and other objects in the home.
The main theme in the story concerns the characters' connections to their ancestral roots. Dee Johnson believes that she is affirming her African heritage by changing her name, her mannerisms, and her appearance, even though her family has lived in the United States for several generations. Maggie and Mrs. Johnson are confused and intimidated by her new image as "Wangero." Their own connections to their heritage rest on their memories of their mothers and grandmothers; they prefer to remember them for who they were as individuals, not as members of a particular race. Because of their differing viewpoints, each values the Johnson's possessions for different reasons. Dee digs around the house for objects she can display in her own home as examples of African-American folk art. Maggie and her mother value the same objects not for their artistic value, but because they remind them of their loved ones. Dee admires a butterchurn, and when Maggie says it was carved by their aunt's first husband—"His name was Henry, but they called him Stash"—Dee responds condescendingly that her sister's memory is like an elephant's. But the story suggests that Maggie's elephant-like memory for her loved ones and her appreciation for their handiwork is a more...
(The entire section is 632 words.)