The narrator of Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" is the African American mother of two daughters, Dee and Maggie. Dee has left the family home, and Maggie, who had been badly burned when their former home burned, is still at home with her mother. There has been long standing tension in the family because Dee, in the mother's view, has always been rejecting of her family and upbringing. Her mother and her church had raised money to send Dee away to school. It is established that Dee thinks of herself as better than her family and community and has aspirations that reject their traditions and values.
As the story opens, Maggie and her mother are waiting for Dee to arrive for a visit. When she arrives, Dee makes a point of photographing her mother, sister, the house, and a cow before informing her mother that she is not longer Dee; she is "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!" Dee's rationale for changing her name is that her given name originates from her "oppressors" while her chosen name reflects her true heritage and identity. She has arrived with a male Muslim companion who may or may not be her husband. Their mother is hospitable and goes along with Dee's new name and identity without comment, while Dee rather gluttonously and unashamedly helps herself to the traditional food her mother has prepared.
After they share a meal, Dee begins to help herself to practical items that had been made by hand by family members, notably the hand-carved top and dasher of a butter churn. She announces her intention to use them as decorative items at her home and then asks her mother for two heirloom quilts that have been promised to Maggie when she marries. Maggie says that she does not object, but their mother will not allow it. Dee becomes angry and argues that Maggie will put the quilts to "everyday use" while she would hang them on the wall. As she leaves empty-handed, she makes a dismissive statement about her mother and sister not understanding their heritage.
The irony that Walker intends here is that it is actually Dee/Wangero who does not understand truly her heritage. She treats her mother and sister and the family heirlooms as artifacts of cultural anthropology, as if they are primitives to be studied instead of recognizing and taking pride in them as pragmatic survivors with their own American story to tell. Dee's radicalism is as foreign to them as they are to her, but the difference is that Dee comes off as inauthentic, rapacious and cruel while her mother and sister are content to be themselves. The story is often read as a challenge to the Black Power movement that Walker may have felt that some joined rather thoughtlessly.