In "Everyday Use," what do the quilts represent and how are they important to the story?
Dee (Wangero) returns to visit her mother and sister, Maggie. Dee has discovered a new appreciation for her African heritage. However, Dee's appreciation is more voyeuristic and objectifying than it is genuine. She starts singling things out from her mother's home that she wants to have; things that might help her showcase her heritage. For example, she says she wants the top of the butter churn to use as a centerpiece. She doesn't want it for its practical use; she wants to display it for its cultural significance. Dee hasn't really embraced her African or familial heritage in a functional, genuine way; rather, she wants to display such heritage in her home as art.
When Dee asks for the quilts, her mother wants to keep them because they have sentimental (and practical) value. When Mrs. Johnson, the mother, adds that she's been saving the quilts for Maggie's marriage, Dee responds:
"Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!" she said. "She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."
Mrs. Johnson adds that she hopes Maggie will use them. Dee does not give up and notes that she intends to hang them up. Dee intends to display them rather than use them for their intended purpose: everyday use.
The quilts represent family (not racial) heritage. Dee wants to use them to display this heritage (for Dee, it is racial more than familial). This isn't a bad thing but the problem is that Dee is more concerned with showing this heritage, like an exotic prize, than living it. Mrs. Johnson and Maggie would rather use the quilts as quilts, thus honoring the familial value they have. (The quilts were knitted by Grandma Dee and Aunt/Big Dee and contained pieces of clothing worn by Grandma Dee and Grandpa Jarrell). Dee wants to create the impression that she is in touch with her heritage, familial and racial. Mrs. Johnson and Maggie simply want to continue to live the heritage that they have been living. Part of this continuation is to use the quilts as quilts.