Alice Walker writes about the struggles of an African-American family in the early 1970s. "Everyday Use” focuses on the Johnson family led by Mrs. Johnson, the mother of the family, who serves as the narrator of the story.
Mama has two daughters who represent different spectrums in a family. Maggie, the younger daughter, has been terribly scarred both emotionally and physically when their house burned. She does not connect with people.
On the other hand, Dee is pretty, ambitious, and wants to get as far away from her family life as she can and as soon as possible. While living at home, Dee cared nothing for the family heirlooms. These items were the old stuff that reminded her of what she desperately wanted to get away from in her future.
Historically, this was time when the Negro became the black or African-American. The black was searching for a link to his African heritage. Many of the young black people wanted to disconnect from the American part of their lives because of the stories told of suffering and cruelty. This was the time of “Black Power” and the “Black Muslim.” Changing the American name to one of African origin was a common practice at this time.
When Dee goes to college, she promises her mother that she would return to visit her. On this day in the story, Dee has come home.
Sometimes I dream a dream in which Dee and I are brought together on a tv show…Then we are on stage with Dee embracing me with tears in her eyes. She pins an orchid on my dress…
Mama accepts Dee's changes to her attire and hair with her usual good natured approach to her elder daughter. Mama will call Dee “ Wangero” if that is what she wants. Surprisingly, Dee has latched onto the idea of African tradition. Her idea is to concentrate on the symbolic items that were made when her ancestors had to make things by hand because of their poverty.
Mama and Maggie have made a life for themselves without Dee. Proud of Dee’s accomplishments, Mama wants to reestablish a connection with her. Unfortunately, Dee has other ideas. She really has come home to take things from Mama's home to her house to illustrate her black heritage, not to visit with her family.
Dee’s insensitivity for the items that her mother values demonstrates to her mother that she just wants to display them, not to have them because they were made by loving hands to carry down through the generations. These are bits and pieces of African-American legacy to Mama.
When Dee wants to take two quilts that have been handmade by two grandmothers, Mama says:
These quilts were “pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee,” both figures in family history who, unlike this present Dee, took charge in teaching their culture and heritage to their offspring.
Mama tells her they belong to Maggie. Dee does not understand wasting these valuable quilts on everyday use when the quilts would look good hanging on the walls of her apartment. Dee wants nothing to do with the quilts that her mother helped make because those are of recent times. She wants the black tradition.
The quilts that Dee desires are made up of pieces of dresses and shirts and uniforms from her ancestors. These are the things that matter: the family’s culture, the family’s values, and the family’s inheritance.
Alice Walker strives to show that the black way of life must be not only African but American as well. That is the black society’s ethnicity.