Everyday Use Theme

What is the theme of "Everyday Use," and how is that theme communicated?

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In the story, Dee seems to have developed an appreciation of her racial heritage at the expense of her personal and familial heritage. Though she is named after her aunt, who was named after her mother, who was named after her mother, and so on back for generations, Dee changes...

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In the story, Dee seems to have developed an appreciation of her racial heritage at the expense of her personal and familial heritage. Though she is named after her aunt, who was named after her mother, who was named after her mother, and so on back for generations, Dee changes her name to something that sounds more African—Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo—perhaps in order to fit in with the growing appreciation for one's blackness that was developing in the 1960s and 190s. In a sense, Dee misses the forest for the trees. She is so taken with the idea of heritage as something that is dead and past and must be preserved that she fails to recognize the importance of family stories and memories, as well as the fact that she selfishly wants to take items that her mother and sister use on a daily basis. She tells them,

"I can use the chute top as a centerpiece for the alcove table [. . .] and I'll think of something artistic to do with the dasher."

It's as though she wants to show off this evidence of her heritage. She seems to want evidence of some past to which she is not really connected—Maggie knows the stories, but Dee does not. Dee even wants to hang the quilts on the wall, like at a museum, and she calls Maggie "'backward'" because Maggie would actually use them as blankets. Dee is hardly a sympathetic character; Walker seems to want us to side with Maggie and Mama. When Mama refuses Dee, perhaps the first time she's ever done so, it becomes clear that Walker condemns Dee's priorities. Mama even compares the feeling that inspires her to refuse Dee to the feeling she gets when she's "in church and the spirit of God touches" her; it's like a divine clarity. We should then, as Mama and Maggie do, view heritage as something which must be kept alive, not preserved like a fossil—something dead. Real appreciation for one's heritage includes knowing the stories, learning the traditions, and sharing the memories of one's family, not just one's race.

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In Alice Walker's short story, "Everyday Use," one of the main themes is mother/daughter relationships. Mama narrates the story of her very two different daughters, Maggie and Dee. Maggie has been scarred by the fire that burnt down their first house and lives with Mama. She is about to get married. On the other hand, Dee has left the family home and changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo in honor of her African heritage. Ironically enough, by changing her name, she has lost her true family lineage because Dee was named after her aunt and grandmother.

When Dee arrives for a visit, she announces her new name to Mama, stating that Dee is "dead." She has turned her back on her roots. Wangero also wants the quilts that represent her family's heritage because they were handmade from her ancestors' dresses and even contain a piece of a Civil War uniform. She wants to hang them on a wall as artifacts. Mama has promised these quilts to Maggie for everyday use. When Mama decides to give the quilts to Maggie, she realizes the worth of her daughter Maggie, and the foolishness of "Miss Wangero."

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One important subject that Alice Walker addresses in her short story is humans' varied perspectives of heritage.  While it is common to feel sympathy for Mama and Maggie in "Everyday Use" because Dee seems so condescending toward them, Walker doesn't necessarily expect readers to view Mama and Maggie's perspective of heritage as the sole right one.  Even though Dee is not as sympathetic a character as the other two women in her family, she is still an admirable figure.  She is ambitious and has taken the initiative to see what opportunities exist for her in the world, and she simply has a different view of her heritage and how to show appreciation for it than Mama and Maggie do (i.e., the quilts).

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The main theme in the story concerns personal values and identity. Maggie and Dee grew up as sisters in the same home, but they could not be more different. To Dee, home was a place from which to escape as soon as possible on the way to a "better" life. She hungered for education and material wealth. She had no meaningful relationship with her mother and sister and felt no interest in or connection to her grandparents and great grandparents. Dee chose to identify with her African ancestors while rejecting her family. She is portrayed as self-centered, insensitive, and abrasive. Maggie, in contrast, shared a loving bond with her mother and embraced her family history. Though far less educated and in no way stylish like her sister, Maggie and her values are far more appealing than Dee's.

The major theme develops through the disposition of a family quilt promised to Maggie when she married. Dee cares nothing about the history of the quilt or her grandmother who sewed it, the woman for whom she was named. To Dee, it represents a "priceless" piece of art to hang on the wall. Maggie, however, values the quilt because it was made by her grandmother whom she remembers with love.

In giving the quilt to Maggie, their mother makes the major theme of the story quite clear. Dee's values are condemned. In rejecting her personal heritage in favor of a different identity, Dee had lost an important part of her life that she was too foolish to even miss.

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The question of identity as it pertains to African-American women in the 1960s and 1970s (as  well as now) is an important theme in the short story. The quilts represent generations of Johnson women, a series of mother-daughter relationships that have constructed identities through various conditions. The quilts are art as well, art crafted by women from one generation to the next, signifying that art is grounded in a community of women through relationships, and by passing on this art, they also pass on a shared identity of their unique African (and American) culture.  Dee's name change shows her wanting to go back behind this immediate history and identity to an imagined one which is imagined rather than real, one that ignores all that quilting represents in this family. In trying to get to her "roots" as an African-American woman, to claim an identity that is "African," she not only denigrates the relationships of women that construct who she is but also "buys into" a false identity (according to the author) manufactured as a fad rather than based on lived lives.

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Family heritage and materialism are intertwined themes in this story. Dee wants things from her childhood home for their monetary value and for the status of owning valuable "objects".

Maggie loves and wants them because they represent generations of family and history, not for how much they are worth in dollars.

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Alice Walker's "Everday Use" is designed around the theme of appreciating the past & one's family. This can be a difficult task, at times, because our past & family is so familiar to us (like everyday objects) that we often take it/them for granted.

Walker skillfully proves her point through the two sisters, Dee and Maggie (through the eyes of their mother). Dee wants a contemporary identity, but one tied to her African heritage, which she believes to be more important. Scornfully, she tells her mother not to call her Dee anymore:

"What happened to 'Dee'?" I wanted to know.
"She's dead," Wangero (Dee) said. "I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me."

Wangero (Dee) thinks she has been named after a white woman. Her mother assures her she was named after her grandmother, but Dee argues that the line goes back to whites.

Maggie, on the other hand, embraces her past, adoring the handmade quilts her grandmother made. Here is revealed the primary difference between the sisters: Dee wants the quilts because they are "art objects" and argues that Maggie "would be backward enough to put them to everyday use."

Everyday use, in the narrator's opinion, is the way to value the past, to keep it alive. It is not keeping it in a museum, or seperating yourself from your family.

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