In Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," the narrator speaks of herself, her home and her two very different daughters.
There had been a fire ten or twelve years before that had harmed Mrs. Johnson's daughter, Maggie. However, as the house burned, the narrator saw her other daughter's face and the hate she had for their home. As the story goes on, the reader comes to understand that it was what it meant living in such a house that Dee hated, more than the house itself. Dee would never be satisfied to live in such a place, or have the meager life her mother and sister have.
Mrs. Johnson has had a difficult life. There is no mention of having a husband to help her on her homestead. Quite matter-of-factly, she acknowledges (with some pride) that she can "kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man." One year she "knocked a bull calf straight in the brain between the eyes with a sledge hammer..." She had the beef hung up to cure before the sun went down. Not a complainer, she has done what needed to be done. Mrs. Johnson is a realist; she is also comfortable with who she is.
Maggie is almost the shadow of a person.
"How do I look, Mama?" Maggie says, showing just enough of her thin body enveloped in pink skirt and red blouse for me to know she's there almost hidden by the door.
Her mother describes Maggie's behavior as similar to that of a dog that might have been hit by a car, now lame and looking for someone to be kind to her. She is quiet and unassuming. She has the posture of one who hopes not to be noticed.
Dee, on the other hand, has been a force to be reckoned with since she was young. She is more attractive than her sister. She was the one to leave home after her mother and the church put together the funds to send her to school in Augusta. She learned, then and forced her learning on her uneducated mother and sister—
...forcing words, lies, other folks' habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant under her voice.
Dee showed no desire to help her mother or sister advance through learning, but wants to control them with what she knew. It demonstrates how far removed the life she lives is from that of her past and her family.
Dee wanted nice things. Her clothes, though gifted to her mother and worn before, were transformed so that Dee was proud to wear them, as they transformed her from a country girl to a woman with prospects:
At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was.
Now Dee comes to visit and makes a dramatic entrance. Not only is she wearing long and flowing African garb and real gold jewelry at her ears and on her wrists, but she also carries herself like a princess. She treats her mother's house and homestead like they are part of a museum rather than the remnants of a life she once lived herself. She takes a photo of the place, and another of her mother and sister. Like an outsider looking in, she has no connection with these people or her ancestors.
Dee arrives with grace and style. With her is a stocky man who tells them to call him Hakim-a-barber. As they approach, Mrs. Johnson addresses her daughter by her name. However, Dee corrects her and tells her that her name is now "Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo," and that Dee "is dead." She refuses, she explains, to be named after the people who "oppressed her," though she was actually named after her aunt, and the family has passed down the name through countless generations.
Changing her name is just another way in which Dee has attempted to break away from her family and its far-distant past. While she may express the need to remove herself from a young woman descended from slaves, she seems more embarrassed than entitled in her new "position" in the world. She sees no value in things that belonged to her grandmother or mother except as they can be used to promote the new identity she has created. The benches and the butter dish are not worthwhile because they were hand-made by someone in the family, but because they will fit nicely in her new home—which is an extension of her new identity. Both have been created in the image Dee wishes to adopt for herself: how she hopes to be seen by the world. There is nothing to connect her to the men and women who came before her, making her personal transition possible in the first place. She has no regard for her mother who worked so hard to provide Dee with a home, and managed to send Dee away to school. She has no compassion for her injured sister.
Dee changed her name because she was ashamed of where she came from and did not want to be known as a poor kid that started out in hand-me-downs. She has changed her name and appearance to disassociate herself from her family, descended from slaves. She has returned only to take things that she believes will be admired in her home, not because she acknowledges the significance of the sacrifices of those who lived before her. In this way, Dee is very different from Maggie.
Maggie is actually the daughter who is richer by far because she sees the pricelessness of the things and people of her past. Maggie is not defined by the past. Dee, ironically, is completely defined by the past she is trying to reject. Dee doesn't really know who she is, but Maggie (like her mother) knows exactly who she is. Maggie is not only satisfied with her situation, but also happy with the life she will carve out for herself with her soon-to-be husband, along with the patches of the past, sewn into a quilt she will use everyday—special because of the history it comes with, and the love of the women who created it.
After going away to college, Dee creates a new life for herself and tries to create a new personal identity. She changes her name in an attempt to identify with her African heritage and to leave behind the life into which she had been born. She rejects her own heritage as a black American and her mother's daughter.
Dee's behavior reflects the social movement of the 1960s and 1970s in which the ideas of "black pride" or Black Nationalism, developed from the struggle for civil rights, were adopted by some Americans of African descent. Malcom X, one influential leader in the African-American community, encouraged his followers to abandon their "slave names," in favor of African names that reflected pride in their heritage. This theme is also found in A Raisin in the Sun through the character of Beneatha.
Dee's name change is a great example of irony in this story. The reason that Dee gives for changing her name is that she doesn't want to go by her "slave name." She chooses an African name to better represents her family heritage. Of course, in doing this she actually separates herself from her family heritage (Dee was, in fact, a family name).
E-notes has some great resources on this story.
After leaving home, Dee spent time researching her African ancestry and decided that she could no longer bear being named after her "oppressors." This statement greatly troubles her mother, who reminds Dee that she was named not after any oppressors but after Mama's sister, Dicie, whom they called "Big Dee" after Dee is born.
Dee rejects this explanation, pressing her mother to explain whom Big Dee was named after. When Mama counters that Big Dee was named after Grandma Dee, Dee again challenges her. Once more, she asks whom Grandma Dee was named after. Mama retorts that Grandma Dee was named after her mother, but that she could not trace the line of Dees any further than that; she also silently considers how she could likely trace the name all the way back through the Civil War.
Dee carries the name of many women in her family, but instead of seeing this as a gift of ancestral heritage, she rejects it as a sign of her family's oppression, changing her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.
It is interesting, then, that Dee wants to claim her family's quilt, which contains little bits of her family's history, all the way back to a piece taken from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War. Though this tangible fabric seems to hold great meaning for Dee, her name, which carries the heritage of a line of women in her family, does not.
Dee wants to separate herself from those parts of her heritage which she believes shows the oppression in her family's history, which is why she changes her name.
When Dee arrives at her mother's humble country home with her boyfriend, Hakim-a-barber, Mrs. Johnson addresses her daughter by her name. Dee responds by correcting her mother and saying that she has changed her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo. Dee proceeds to tell Mama that she changed her name because she could not bear to be named after people who oppressed her ancestors. Essentially, Dee changed her name to express solidarity with her African ancestors and publicly reject the name given to her ancestors by their former slave masters. However, Dee's act of changing her name is also a rejection of her direct family's heritage. Mama explains that she can trace Dee's name back to the Civil War and cherishes her daughter's name because it belonged to her loved ones. Dee's attempt at celebrating her African heritage misses the mark, as she unknowingly denies her real heritage. This is also emphasized by her perception of the family quilts.