Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" provides insight into the importance of heritage and legacy to not only African-American but to all families. There is a problem in this family which stems from two sources: a generation gap and lack of respect. The time of the story is the mid 1960s, and the "Negro" has become the African-American.
Mama [Mrs. Johnson] is the protagonist in the story. Her character represents many mothers who work hard, devote themselves to their children, and hope that the children's lives are better than theirs. Narrating the story, Mama conveys her views of both of the daughters, who are as different as night and day.
Mama daydreams about her oldest daughter, Dee, wishing that they could have a better relationship. Never able to go to school, Mama cannot read; however, she is proud to say that she can work as well as any man, from killing and butchering a pig to milking a cow.
The conflict arises from Dee and her disdain for her life at home. Lacking the basic feelings of sympathy, empathy, and respect, Dee concerns herself only with her needs. She wants to get away from home and leave all of this banality behind her.
When the family's house burns, Maggie is severely burned; but Dee ignores her and seems pleased that the old house is gone. Maggie is forever scarred emotionally and physically. Expressing no outward emotion, Mama thinks that Dee hates Maggie.
After the church and Mama raise the money for Dee to go away to college, Dee promises to manage to visit home. The story circulates around this visit. Maggie dreads the visit, unsure of what Dee will be like. Mama cannot wait to see her educated daughter.
When Dee shows up, she is dressed in the "Black Muslin" attire. Furthermore, she has changed her name to Wangero. Mama accepts all of these differences with her usual good nature. Still, Dee shows no affection for Mama or Maggie.
Dee goes inside the house and begins rummaging around. She comes across two quilts which are an important part of Mama's legacy. Two grandmothers handmade the quilts using pieces of Mama's ancestor's clothing. Dee wants to hang the quilts on the walls in her home. Mama would liked to have reminded Dee that she had offered her a quilt to take with her to college, but Dee said they were old fashioned.
Mama has finally had enough of Dee's arrogance and selfishness. She tells Dee that she cannot have the quilts because they belong to Maggie. Unhappy about Mama's refusal, Dee says that Maggie will put them [the quilts] to "everyday use" and ruin them. Offered other quilts that Mama had made, Dee ignores her.
Dee tries to explain her black heritage to Mama who knows that this is just for show.
'You just don't understand,' Dee said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
'What don't I understand?' I wanted to know.
'Your heritage,' she said. 'You ought to try to make something of 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.'
As Mama listens and watches Dee, she realizes that she has been wrong to place Dee up on a pedestal. Dee has forgotten that she is not only black but American as well. It was as though God spoke to her. She grabbed Maggie and hugged her for the first time. As Dee drove away, Mama felt happy. Her conflict was resolved because she was at home with Maggie.