Themes and Meanings
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 family made these things because they could not afford to buy them. Her admiration for them now seems to reflect a cultural trend toward valuing handmade objects, rather than any sincere interest in her “heritage.” After all, when she was offered a quilt before she went away to college, she rejected it as “old-fashioned, out of style.”
However, a careful reading of the story will show that Dee is not the only one confused about the heritage of the black woman in the rural South. Although the mother and Maggie are skeptical of Dee, they recognize the limitations of their own lives. The mother has only a second-grade education and admits that she cannot imagine looking a strange white man in the eye. Maggie “knows she is not bright” and walks with a sidelong shuffle. Although their dispositions lead them to make the best of their lives, they admire Dee’s fierce pride even as they feel the force of her scorn.
Taken as a whole, although the story clearly endorses the commonsense perspective of Dee’s mother over Dee’s affectations, it does not disdain Dee’s struggle to move beyond the limited world of her youth. Clearly, however, she has not yet arrived at a stage of self-understanding. Her mother and sister are ahead of her in that respect.