What is the general truth in the story "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” presents a conflict between generations. Sometimes, changes are made for the wrong reasons. In the 1970s, the black youth were trying to find their way in a changing but still prejudicial world.  Many African Americans used violence to express their dissatisfaction with status quo. Others latched on to their African heritage pursuing their dreams in a non-violent way.

Mama understands the past and the importance of a family legacy.  Her heritage includes her memories of her mother and grandmother making the quilts together by hand.  One quilt even has material that dates back to the Civil War.  Mama does not have a lot of valuable items, but the quilts and the churn and things that came from her ancestors are invaluable to her. 

Dee has been the apple of her mother’s eye.  Everything that she wanted Mama tried to provide for her.  Never happy in her home, Dee was glad to take the money from Mama’s church and go off to college.

Now, Dee is coming for a visit. Both Mama and her other daughter Maggie are waiting on the front lawn.  When Dee steps out of the car, Dee has become Wangero, a new age Muslim African.

Dee’s purpose in the visit is to take things from home to decorate and show off her black heritage.  She does not understand family legacy.  It is black heritage that she wants to show.

When Mama refuses to give Dee the quilts because she has already promised them to Maggie, Dee is incensed.  For the first time, Mama said “no.” 

Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!" she said. "She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."

"I reckon she would," I said. "God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope she will!"

"But they're priceless!" she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. "Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags."

The quilts represent what Dee does not understand.  That family heritage is more important than just being black.  Her desire to hang the quilts, in a museum-like exhibit, suggests that she feels no reverence for them but that to her they are essentially foreign, impersonal objects.

At the end of the story, Dee contends that Mama and Maggie do not understand what their heritage means.  Clearly, this is an ironic statement; it is Dee herself that does not understand. The best example of her lack of understanding is her name.  The quilts that she so desperately wants were made by her namesake Dee, her grandmother.  To shake off her past, she dropped her name changing it to a meaningless African name.

Something that is new and different does not make it better than the past and its traditions.