What is the main idea of "Everyday Use," and what are some symbols that reflect that main idea?
The main idea of "Everyday Use" is that culture is best celebrated and appreciated by living it rather than by holding it at a distance. Dee, one of the narrator's daughters, has long been embarrassed by her African American mother's country ways. After the narrator sends Dee to school, she thinks:
"She [Dee] used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn't necessarily need to know."
Dee, an educated person, is embarrassed by what she considers to be the rough ways of her mother, who is a strong woman who used to milk cows, and her sister, Maggie, a humble girl who was badly burned in a fire. Dee is everything her mother and Maggie are not—educated, worldly, attractive, and ironic about her culture. She uses her education to put her mother and sister at a distance.
When Dee returns to visit her mother, Dee is now interested in African culture and has named herself Wangero. Dee begs her mother for the quilts her grandmother made. The quilts are symbolic of Dee's culture and illustrate the way in which Dee has long rejected her background, as she refused to take them to college with her. Now, she wants them as objects to hang on her wall and to regard with an aesthetic rather than emotional appreciation. (The butter churn that was whittled by her uncle and that Dee asks for is also symbolic of Dee's culture, and her plan to use it as a table centerpiece illustrates her approach to that culture.) When her mother tells Dee that she can't have the quilts, as they are intended for Maggie when she marries, Dee says, "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts! . . . She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use." It is in fact through "everyday use," and through living a culture and using its traditions every day, that one truly loves and appreciates that culture. Dee's desire to hang the quilts on her wall shows that she doesn't really appreciate her own culture but thinks of it only as an intellectual idea, or perhaps something to show off to her cosmopolitan friends.
As an extension of the main idea that heritage exists in everyday experiences and everyday objects, I would also like to stress Walker's usage of the adverb "everyday" to indicate that heritage is timeless and with us all the time. It is our choice to appreciate it or to neglect it in favor of being popular. Dee's sudden embrace of her heritage is the result of the trend of Afro-centricity that became popular among many black people in the 1960s and 1970s.
Like the previous educator mentioned, the quilt is merely another object—like her long, loose yellow and orange dress and her bracelets—that she uses to exhibit how culturally conscious she is. Her mother knows that this particular expression of Dee's style probably will not last. Her mother recalls how she had tried to give Dee the quilts "when she went away to college," but Dee had told her "they were old-fashioned, out of style."
Furthermore, Dee is an inconstant presence in her mother's life—a different person nearly every time they see each other. On the other hand, Maggie is with her every day, a constant presence, who helps her maintain the farm and whose life will take a path her mother understands after Maggie marries John Thomas.
The main idea is that you honor your heritage not through hanging representations of it on the wall, but through living with it, and through giving it "Everyday Use," as the title indicates.
The seats in the home represent this, as does the butter churn, but the biggest symbol is the quilt, which Wanjiro wants to hang on the wall but which her mother gives to Maggie to use.