Alice Walker uses the story "Everyday Use" to speak to those African-Americans who wanted to find their African heritage but forgot that they were also Americans. Mama, the narrator of the story and the protagonist, wishes her daughter Dee were different.
Dee hated her home and was not unhappy when it burned down. Pretty, intelligent, rude, and selfish--those are the descriptors for Dee. Now she is coming for a visit after being gone from the family to go to college and find her own life.
Mama and Maggie wait nervously for Dee to get there.
A dress down to the ground... A dress so loud it hurts my eyes. Earrings gold too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Her hair stands straight up loike the wool on a sheep. It is balck as night and around the edges are two long pigtails that rope aout like small lizards.
Dee's appearance surprises Mama; but when she says Dee's name, Dee tells her that "Dee is dead." She did not like being named after an ancestor. This is ironic since she is looking for her heritage and she was named after a relative. Her name now is Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Mama accepts her with her usual good nature.
All of Dee's life she has been pulling away from her mother and her black ancestry. Now, she is back with an African name. Dee wants something. First, she tries for the top of the churn; then, its two quilts handmade with loving hands by grandmothers and Mama. Mama tried to give one to Dee when she went off to college, but Dee did not want it because it was too old fashioned. Mama has had enough. She refuses to let Dee have the quilts to hang on her walls to decorate and show her black heritage.
Mama's legacy is everything to her. These quilts were like members of the family containing the family's history. She would give them to Maggie to use on her bed for everyday use. She offers other quilts to Dee, but she wants the ones that have been handmade.
Dee tries to give Mama and Maggie an understanding of their heritage. She talks to Maggie:
You ought to try to make something yourself, too Maggie... It's really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live, you'd never know it.
Dee was right. The times were changing. Negro had been replaced by black or African-American. The Black Muslim and Black Power movements were in full swing during the time of this story. However, Dee's change was superficial.
Mama had not had an education and had to work hard all of her life. However, her lack of education and refinement does not prevent her from having an inherent understanding of her heritage based on her love and respect for those who came before her. This is clear from her ability to associate pieces of fabric in two quilts with the people whose clothes they had been cut from. Dee does not understand this kind of connection to the past. Her legacy is showing that she can dress black, although her dress was more West Indies than black.
Dee's new name is also just a ploy to help Dee to feel like she is someone that she really is not. Her foolishness makes Mama take a long look at Maggie and realize that she is the one who understands the family and the ancestry. She has listened to the stories, and Maggie remembers the names of the family. Dee does not. To Mama, the quilts are symbols of the real black heritage, and they will go to Maggie.