What is the meaning of the title "Everyday Use"?
The title of Alice Walker's short story, "Everyday Use," is pulled from the text and pertains to functional handiwork as opposed to static artifacts. In her story, Alice Walker writes about the "creative legacy of ordinary black women" which is a valuable part of real African American heritage.
The central conflict of this story revolves around the mother's refusal to give her daughter Dee (now calling herself Wangero) two quilts that the women of the family pieced together from scraps of family members' clothing. These quilts, which three generations of women of the family have fashioned from scraps of old clothes, are thus composed of memories stitched together lovingly. There is a faded blue piece of a Civil War uniform worn by Great Grandpa Ezra, pieces of Grandpa Jarrell's old paisley shirts, and other pieces of old dresses worn by Grandma Dee. Whereas Mama and Maggie perceive these quilts as objects that have both function and sentimental beauty, Wangero perceives them only as static objects meant for a framed display of African American artifacts.
Mama believes that the family's heritage should be allowed "everyday use" and be part of daily life, not viewed as an artifact. Her daughter Maggie agrees but Dee does not. Having rejected her mother's offer of the quilts before she left for college, calling them "old-fashioned" and "out of style," Wangero (the new persona of Dee) now perceives them as priceless objects that should be framed and put on display as part of African American heritage.
Feeling "something hit [her] in the top of [her] head," the mother reacts to this hypocrisy and does something she has not done before. She hugs Maggie and pulls her into the room where Wangero stands with the quilts in her arms. Then, the mother grabs the quilts away from "Miss Wangero" and drops them into Maggie's lap. "Take two or three of the others," she says to Dee. Angered, Dee goes outside to where her boyfriend waits by their car.
"You just don't understand," she said, as Maggie and I [the mother] came out to the car.
"What don't I understand?" I wanted to know.
"Your heritage," she said.
After Dee/Wangero and her friend Hakim-a-barber depart, the mother and Maggie sit outside "just enjoying" the moment. Contrary to what Wangero believes, Mama and Maggie do, indeed, understand heritage because they know that the creative legacy of their family should not be framed or put on a shelf. Instead, such items should be handled with love and sentiment and be put to "everyday use."
The significance of the title Everyday Use is that things that are treasured and passed down form generation to generation are meant for Everyday Use and not to be displayed as a trophy. Using cherished items keeps the memories and the past alive. It brings us the warm and loving feelings that make us cherish the items so much. To wrap yourself up in one of those quilts would let you drift back to earlier times and actually picture Grandma quilting and seeing all the time and love that went into making these priceless items. To just display them seems cold and so withdrawn from your past. Dee didn't want to be a part of her past she wanted and still wants the "good" life. Maggie is living the day to day memories of her past because she has grown up respecting it all her life, even with the hardships and devastations she has had to endure. Living, breathing and respecting your culture is taking the good with the bad.
The title refers to the quilts but more metaphorically, to the basic conflict in the story.
Literally, the phrase "everyday use" refers to the way in which the mother wants the quilts to be used. She sees the quilts as useful objects, rather than as heirlooms to be hung up and looked at.
The title also refers to the general conflict that is going on in the story. It refers to the conflict between the old-fashioned "everyday" type of people like the mother and people like Wangero who has all these new ideas. The everyday people are down to earth and practical, the others are more interested in ideas and philosophical statements.
The phrase "everyday use" crystallizes the conflict in the story and governs the structure. As the action develops we see the contrasting values of the two sisters. Dee rejects the past and is creating a new identity for herself. Maggie simply takes the past for granted and also accepts her role in the movement from past to present to future. These two movements of values intersect at the quilt and what is to be done with it. Should it be hung on a wall for display, or should it be put to "everyday use"? Though the story exposes Dee’s pretentiousness, it would seem to be suggesting a compromise. The African-American heritage is alive and present; creative people cannot build the future if they reject the past, for they can develop only if they accept it first and recognize their part in it. In short, people like Dee should put the past to work as a part of their continuing, living consciousness.