“Everyday Use” is a genuinely funny story (“Ream it out again,” the mother says as she tries to learn her daughter’s new name, and she keeps—possibly with tongue in cheek—slipping the new name in throughout the story) with serious undertones. Narrated by the mother, who has two daughters, whose wry good sense contrasts vividly with her older daughter’s pretensions, the story highlights not only a generation gap, but a contrast between two sharply different attitudes toward the idea of heritage.
Dee, having suddenly discovered that old quilts and dashers are potentially interesting decorations, accuses her mother and sister of not understanding their heritage because they fail to appreciate the artistic value of such objects. However, she herself is so divorced from her heritage that she does not know which member of the family made the dasher. It may be true, as Dee accuses, that Maggie
and her mother don’t “understand” their heritage—at least not in an intellectual way.
The story suggests, however, that by using the quilt, and by having learned the traditional skills passed from generation to generation required to make one, Maggie, the homely, uneducated sister, knows more about her African American heritage than does Dee (Wangero). Maggie and her mother live their cultural heritage; they are nourished by it through everyday use and versed in the craftsmanship needed to pass it on to future generations.
That the mother loves Dee is clear. Although she’s aware of the unattractive elements in Dee’s nature, her dream of Dee showing her appreciation for her mother on a television show reveals wistfulness: the older woman longs for Dee to return her love. Instead, Dee is scornful. “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie,” she says as she departs, as if she herself were a superior being, to be emulated. Dee, in spite of her ducation, has never learned to imagine how she appears to others.