What is the significance of the quilts in "Everyday Use"?
The differing ways in which Dee and Mama view the quilts is representative of their difference of opinion overall in this story about what constitutes African American, and family, heritage. To Mama and Maggie, the quilts are living history. Although Maggie says, "I can remember Grandma Dee without the quilts," the quilts are composed of her grandmother's dresses, and pieces of her mother's dresses, and uniforms from the Civil War, and were sewn by hand. They were made to be used, and for Maggie, to receive these quilts upon her marriage and put them to "everyday use" would represent a rite of passage as she becomes the next in a line of Johnson women, part of a family heritage that is not something of the past.
Dee, we are told, has rejected this family heritage more than once. When she went away to college, she rejected an offer of a quilt, declaring it "old fashioned," and she has rejected her own name, "Dee," because although she was named after her aunt Dee and her grandmother before that, she does not feel that this is her "real" heritage. Instead, she wants to take the quilts to be hung on the wall as a symbol of a type of living common to African Americans before times began to "change," and she is critical of Mama and Maggie for refusing to "make something" of themselves and embrace that change. To Dee, the quilts represent a blip in history that occurred in the lives of African Americans between their journey from Africa and their modern reinvention under Civil Rights. To Mama and Maggie, they represent family history for as long as living memory can reach and which has continued unbroken to the present day—and may continue beyond.
The difference in the way the family members view these quilts, then, represents the core conflict in the story and the point of contention between two ways of understanding black history.
The significance of the quilts in the story is that they become items of contention between Dee and her mother. Dee has left home, become college-educated, and has now returned with a sophisticated friend. Dee does not seem cognizant of the fact that the way she is treating her mother, sister, and their home is condescending. It is as if Dee, who has renounced her birth name, sees her family home through an anthropological lens in a way that is both obvious and distasteful to her mother. To Dee, the quilts made by her ancestors are pieces of material culture that should be displayed. To Dee's mother, the quilts are a part of the family's history that have been promised to her younger daughter Maggie for use when she marries a local boy. Dee's sense of entitlement has long been so pervasive that Maggie readily offers up the quilts to her, but their mother will not allow Dee to swoop in and take them; to her, the quilts were meant for everyday use, and she sets Dee straight about how they will be handled.
The quilts in "Everyday Use" are important because they were made by members of the Johnson family and have been pieced together with work shirts, Civil War uniforms and scraps of cloth. They are representative of the Johnson family history and mean a great deal to "Mama" and Maggie. They still use them and "Mama" is passing her love of quilt-making on to Maggie.
They are at the heart of the story because Dee, the oldest daughter, wants to take the quilts to hang on a wall, like a museum piece. Because "Mama" has promised that Maggie, her younger daughter, will get the quilts, "Mama" snatches the quilts out of Dee's hands to prevent Dee from taking the quilts when she leaves the house. eNotes states that:
Maggie and her mother value the same objects not for their artistic value, but because they remind them of their loved ones.
A homemade, handmade quilt is like a scrapbook. As she looks at her quilts, Mama remembers that a certain patch came from her grandfather's paisley shirts, that some pieces came from dresses that Grandma Dee wore 50 years earlier, and even that there was a very small piece of her great-grandfather's Civil War uniform. To Dee, the quilts are a quaint "primitive" artform. To Mama and Maggie, they represent more than that. They are family memories, very personal and very special mementos of loved ones who are gone.
quilts are the things that we use everyday. In this story, Dee thinks that they have to hang the quilt on the wall. However, culture is made by people in daily life, not just put the heritage like a painting. What Dee have done have lost the significance of the heritage.