What is the symbolism in Walker's "Everyday Use"?
The main symbol is how history and the different generations of a family are connected.
Maggie's burned skin represents how she's been "burned" by the events of her life. She's fragile and worn down from the hard life she's lived. Mrs. Johnson's hands symbolize her tough life in trying to survive on the land where they live. She's had to work hard all of her life, doing whatever is necessary to survive.
Names are also important symbols. Dee chooses an African name that has no connection to her family and the generations that have come before her. Hakim-a-barber's difficult African name shows how he has rejected his heritage, especially since he's unable to eat the collard greens and pork that are traditional foods of African Americans. It's ironic that he's shed everything about his heritage in order to "find" his identity as a Muslim.
The clothes the characters wear also say something about the characters themselves. Mrs. Johnson wears clothing that is practical for the kind of life she lives. Her overalls and flannel nightgowns depict her no-nonsense, harsh life that she leads on a daily basis. Maggie's dress that "[falls] off her in little black papery flakes" symbolizes the hurt she's suffered and her vulnerability. Dee's wild, colorful clothing show that she is a colorful, vibrant woman, but is also shows she's unwilling to be characterized as her mother and sister are.
I would like to add a bit more about the symbolism of the quilts. Maggie notes their family significance, but there is more to the history than just nostaliga.
Quilting for African-Americans was more than just creating pretty decorations or family heirlooms. There were symbolism created by the patterns that helped tribes identify one another in Africa; in America, certain patterns helped identify "safe homes" for runaways slaves (the quilt displayed in a window, for example.)
Moreover, it was believed by many that "a break in a pattern also helped keep evil spirits away. Evil is believed to travel in straight lines and a break in a pattern or line confuses the spirits and slows them down." This may be one of the reasons for the "double ring" pattern so often given to newlyweds.
Dee (Wangero) wants to take the quilts because she knows such items are valuable to her "African" heritage, but since she does not value their sentimentality and does not care to learn about what the patterns meant to her family, she is trying to create that "straight line" that will not help her understand her real hertiage very much. Lives, like quilts, are pieced together by many experiences, creating patterns of meaning.
"Everyday Use" is so replete with symbolism it seems difficult to cover all of it. I would like to add two details that are important but have not yet been mentioned, and both pertain to Dee.
First, her clothing when she arrives. The narrator says "It's so loud it hurts my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun. I feel my whole face warming from the heat waves it throws out." Through this description, we see Dee associated with fire, the same thing that burnt and scarred her sister, Maggie.
Second, when Dee leaves, "She put on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and her chin." The dark glasses, in other words, hide her identity as well as darken her vision of the world, preventing her from seeing the truth of all she has experienced that day in regard to family and heritage. Immediately before she puts them on, in fact, she tells Maggie: "You ought to try to make of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day fro us. But from the way you and Mama still live you'd never know it." With her dark glasses on, unfortunately, Dee will never see that "new day" that her sister and Mother understand and live everyday of their lives.
- The quilt is a symbol of the family heritage that can only be appreciated by certain people. It symbolizes a long line of relatives. As you pick up a quilt and look at it, it has several pieces of cloth that are sowed together. The Grandmother made the quilt by hand, which makes it very special.
- Hakim-a barber is important to the story as a symbol of the new life that Dee has chosen. He may or may not be her husband, which hints at both his and Dee’s transitional nature.
- Maggie’s physical description is also symbolic of her personality. She has been marked by her surroundings.