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"Everyday Use" takes place in the yard and house of the Johnson family in rural Georgia in the early 1970s. The location is established in the exposition (paragraph 1):
I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know. It is not just a yard. It is like an extended living room. When the hard clay is swept clean as a floor and the fine sand around the edges lined with tiny, irregular grooves, anyone can come and sit and look up into the elm tree and wait for the breezes that never come inside the house.
The focus is on the duality of Mrs. Johnson, as she feels more comfortable outside, doing man's work (butchering a hog), rather than inside, doing domestic work.
The story itself was written in 1973 and is meant to be present day. The speaker, Mrs. Johnson, alludes to The Johnny Carson show: "There I meet a smiling, gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson who shakes my hand and tells me what a fine girl I have."
Later, when her daughter Dee comes home from college, allusions to the Black Nationalist movement (Nation of Islam) is mentioned, establishing the story at the crossroads of the post-Civil Rights era.
The setting of "Everyday Use" is rural Georgia in the early 1970s when the Black Nationalist Movement emerged.
Many African Americans struggled for cultural and political identity as they sought to bring into the American consciousness the contributions of their race. In reaction to their history of repression, "white" names were discarded by leaders such as Malcolm X, who excoriated those who retained the surnames of former slave owners. Following the example of the movement of Malcolm X, Dee adopts another name, Wangero, and her boyfriend, who has renamed himself Hakim-a-barber, seems to represent the militant groups. These names are mocked by Dee's mother, for she feels that one's past, whether positive or not, is part of a person's history and development.
Mama also recognizes the hypocrisy of her daughter and boyfriend, as they wish to take family heirlooms and put them on display like a museum piece rather than use them the way they were intended to be.
When Dee attempts to take the quilts sewn from pieces of family history and put them on display, her subservient daughter Maggie tells the mother that her sister may have these quilts. Mama suddenly has an epiphany:
When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. . . I did something I never had done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero's hand and dumped them into Maggie's lap.
The mother's actions are a recognition of the lives of African Americans. Whether for better or worse, the quilts represent the historical travails, love, and authenticity of her family, a heritage that she recognizes all the more when it is threatened. She wishes to protect the quilt from Wangero, who would pervert this history by displaying the quilt as an artifact.
After Dee and her boyfriend depart, Mama and Maggie sit in the yard and watch as the Georgia dust settles behind the car.
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