What is the overall theme of "Everyday Use?"

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The story explores the rejection of one's heritage in favor of another. The chief character in this narrative, Dee Johnson, rejects all the Southern African American values, customs, and traditions she has been raised with and adopts those that she believes better reflect her origins. Her actions, though, appear pretentious and shallow.    

Even before leaving home to pursue further education, Dee presents an intense dislike for her living conditions. She is, for example, happy that her original home has burnt down. When she returns home, supposedly to visit and get reconnected to her roots, her real purpose is exposed. She is only there to collect samples of her heritage as items for display. She does not know much about her history, and when her sister, Maggie, recounts some of it, she says that Maggie remembers like an elephant.   

Dee has disrespectfully abandoned her name and adopted an Africanised one. Her new name is Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. It is quite ironic that she has taken on a name with no history behind it at all, while she rejects a name that has been in her family for generations. She rejects her original name supposedly because she is named after her oppressors. Her statement lacks depth and insight and displays further irony because the implication of what she says is that her own family persecuted her. She has, however, been treated and raised with love and care. Her mother and the church (which means the community) even raised enough money for her to attend school in Augusta.

Dee's partner is also from a different culture. He is obviously Muslim since Mama refers to him (somewhat mockingly) as Asalamalakim (an Arabic greeting) and Hakim-a-barber (an Islamic name that she clearly cannot pronounce).  

Dee's materialism and superficiality are exposed when she lays claim to Grandma Dee's butter dish, not because she wants to use it, but because she wants to put it on display. When she later demands two quilts that were created by her two namesakes, Grandma Dee, Big Dee (her aunt), and her mother, Mama rejects her request and states that they are wedding gifts for Maggie. Mama takes the quilts from her and gives them to Maggie.  

Dee, who appears to have always gotten what she wanted, is upset and decides to leave. Her parting words to Maggie most apparently indicate her rejection of an age-old heritage and the adoption of a new way of life. She tells Maggie:  

You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It's really a new day for us. But the way you and mama still live you'd never know it.

In Dee's eyes, Mama and Maggie's lifestyle is out of date and out of style. She believes that she is progressive by adopting a new name and customs while they are backward.

belarafon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The overall theme is family heritage and the connection, or disconnection, between a life lived to impress peers and a life lived to continue and respect the family lineage. Dee contrasts with Maggie and Mrs. Johnson, showing her disdain for old traditions except where she can use them to make herself look more caring and intelligent. Mrs. Johnson sometimes dreams of living a more modern, socially acceptable lifestyle, but knows that she does a good job keeping her family alive and bringing useful skills into the modern age.

Dee has no respect for old traditions, preferring to live in what she sees as a socially-acceptable, modern lifestyle. She even rejects her given name:

"I couldn't bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me."

"You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie," I said.
(Walker, "Everyday Use," xroads.virginia.edu)

She has no real sense of the heritage behind her name, or the "old-fashioned" things that she covets. She wants the quilts not because she likes them, but because she can point out their history and impress other people. In this way, she contrasts her self-absorbed, selfish outlook with Mrs. Johnson's straightforward, simple outlook.