Everyday Use Summary
"Everyday Use" portrays the family reunion of a mother and her two very different daughters: quiet, traditional Maggie and educated, opinionated Dee.
- Mama and Maggie wait in the yard for Dee, who left home to attend college. When Dee arrives, Mama is surprised to see that she and the man who accompanies her are wearing traditional African clothes. Dee explains that she has embraced her African roots.
- Dee plans to take the quilts made by her grandmother to display as examples of traditional art. However, Mama refuses and instead gives them to Maggie, for whom the quilts hold sentimental and practical value.
Mama and Maggie are awaiting the return of Dee—Mama’s second daughter and Maggie’s sister. Dee prompts feelings of both awe and fear in Maggie and apprehension in Mama. Maggie, particularly, feels as drawn to her sister’s glamor and worldliness as she feels judged by it. Mama predicts that when Dee arrives, Maggie will stand in corners, “homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs.” Worse, Maggie holds her chin to her chest and averts her gaze—a tendency that she has had since their first house burned down ten to twelve years before. Mama recalls how Dee looked pleased to see the first house, which she loathed, burn to the ground. Mama imagines that when Dee sees the new house—three rooms with a tin roof—she’ll want to tear it down, too.
Dee wanted nice things—better clothes and a better life, afforded by education. With the help of her church, Mama raised enough money to send Dee to school in Augusta. Dee tried to impart what she had learned to Mama and Maggie, but she quickly grew impatient with them.
When Dee drives up, Maggie tries to shuffle quickly out of the house. Mama catches her and orders her back. Dee is accompanied by a man with a large Afro and a beard that looks “like a kinky mule tail.” Dee is just as astonishing a sight. She is wearing a yellow and orange dress, gold earrings, and many bracelets. She, too, has an Afro. She and the strange man greet Mama and Maggie with words that neither can understand. Before Mama can rise, Dee tells her to remain where she is on the porch. Dee then snaps several Polaroids of Mama and the house, of Maggie, and of a cow that has come to nibble grass in the pasture that is their yard. Meanwhile, Dee’s male companion tries to give Maggie the “soul shake,” with no success.
Dee reintroduces herself to her mother and sister as Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo and declares “Dee” dead, due to Wangero’s refusal to be named after those who have oppressed her. Mama reminds her that she was named after her aunt Dicie, or “Big Dee”—Mama’s sister—who was named after Grandma Dee. After some practice with pronunciation, Mama and Maggie are able to pronounce Dee’s new name. Mama has a harder time with the name of Dee’s companion. In the end, he settles on having her call him Hakim-a-barber. Mama wonders whether he and Dee are married, but she decides against asking.
The four of them sit and eat collard greens, pork, sweet potatoes, and cornbread. Hakim-a-barber refuses to touch the pork, which he declares unclean, but Wangero heartily devours everything. She then gets to admiring the home furnishings—the bench on which she sits and the churn and dasher in the corner. She decides to take the churn and dasher. She plans to use the churn as a centerpiece for her alcove table and promises to “think of something artistic to do with the dasher.” After wrapping up these items, she goes to the trunk at the foot of Mama’s bed and fishes out some quilts that were pieced together by Mama and Wangero’s namesakes—Big Dee and Grandma Dee. Wangero sweetly asks if she can have the quilts, but Mama invites her to take one of the quilts that were sewn by machine. Mama then admits that she’s promised the patchwork quilts to Maggie. Wangero protests, claiming that Maggie wouldn’t appreciate the quilts and would probably “be backward enough to put them to everyday use.” Mama quietly recalls how she had offered the...
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quilts to Wangero before she left for college. At that time, Wangero had declared the quilts—made from scraps of Grandma Dee’s fifty-year-old dresses and Great Grandpa Ezra’s Civil War uniform—“old-fashioned, out of style.” Now, Wangero declares the quilts priceless.
While Mama and Wangero go back and forth over the supposed value of the quilts, Maggie stands in the door and agrees to give her sister the quilts. Mama observes how the snuff in Maggie’s bottom lip gives her a “dopey, hangdog look.” Mama decides that Maggie—who has grown accustomed to never winning anything—will have the quilts. She snatches them from Wangero and puts them in Maggie’s lap, once again inviting Wangero to take one of the machine-stitched quilts. Wangero turns on her heel and leaves.
Wangero and Hakim-a-barber prepare to drive off. Before they leave, Wangero lectures her mother about how poorly she understands her heritage. She then advises Maggie to do something with her life and to recognize all of the ways in which the world has changed. After Wangero and her companion leave, Maggie and Mama sit on the porch, each enjoying a dip of snuff, until it’s time to go to bed.