Everyday Use Characters

The main characters in “Everyday Use” are Mama Johnson, Maggie Johnson, and Dee Johnson.

  • Mama Johnson is the story’s narrator and Dee and Maggie’s mother. A tough, direct, practical woman, she is resigned to rural life and unfazed by Dee’s criticisms.
  • Maggie Johnson is Mama’s youngest daughter. She is timid, homely, and not especially bright, but she maintains a sincere connection to her family heritage.
  • Dee “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” Johnson is Mama’s eldest daughter. She left home to attend college in Atlanta years before and returns to visit the farm with a new name and a sense of superiority, asking for family heirlooms to display as artifacts.

Characters

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Last Reviewed on April 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1101

Mama Johnson

Mama is the story’s narrator and the mother of Maggie and Dee. She describes herself as “a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands.” She eschews femininity and identifies her toughness and resourcefulness with masculinity. She wears flannel nightgowns at night and overalls during the day. She can kill and clean a hog with ease and knock a bull calf “between the eyes with a sledgehammer.” She was once even kicked in the side by a cow, in 1949, when she was trying to milk it.

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Though Mama is ruthless about killing to eat, she is timid around white people. Her daughter Dee’s unwillingness to allow anyone to intimidate her is one of several remarkable qualities that causes Mama to be in awe of her.

Dee’s education is another source of admiration. Mama never received any schooling past the second grade due to the colored school being closed down in 1927. She is a church-going woman who raised enough money with her congregation to send Dee to school. She entertains herself with songs learned in church, though she cannot carry a tune. She is a plain-spoken woman who deals with people and matters directly. As a narrator, she speaks in a voice that is wise, authoritative, and warm. She is rooted in her setting. Though she didn’t choose her home, she gives no indication that she has ever thought about going elsewhere. Mama lacks any feeling of embarrassment about not understanding Dee’s new lifestyle and is unfazed when Dee accuses Mama of not understanding her heritage. Mama identifies more with Maggie, who lives with her and has also resigned herself to rural life.

Maggie Johnson

Maggie is one of Mama’s daughters and Dee’s sister. Maggie, unlike Dee, lacks self-confidence and has both the look and manner of someone who feels defeated by her circumstances. Unlike Dee, she knows that she doesn’t have the inner resources to leave the farm on which she lives with Mama. She is homely and has burn scars on her arms and legs that were likely caused by the fire that destroyed the family’s first home.

Mama compares Maggie’s walk to that of “a lame animal,” made that way by someone else’s carelessness. Maggie is eager to please and will accept any attention that is bestowed upon her. Partly for this reason, Maggie is engaged to John Thomas—a young man with “mossy teeth in an earnest face.”

Dee’s presence makes Maggie anxious. She is both afraid of her sister and in awe of her. Mama notes that Maggie is neither good-looking nor particularly bright. She can read but struggles to see. She speaks softly, as though she is unsure that she has anything of value to say. Unlike Dee, she retains a long memory about the Johnson family’s heritage, leading Dee to compare her sister’s brain to that of an elephant. Her more sincere connection to the family heritage, and her assumption that she is somehow less deserving of the coveted patchwork quilts than her sister, leads Mama to bestow the quilts on Maggie.

Dee “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” Johnson

Dee is the daughter of Mama Johnson and the sister of Maggie. She left home to attend college years before. She comes to visit her mother and sister from time to time but insists that she will never bring friends with her to visit the farm.

Dee is someone who has always emphasized style, according to Mama. Mama thinks that one of the main points of contention between her and Dee is that Mama is unable to fit the image of femininity that Dee has in mind for her—thin and lighter-skinned with straight hair. Mama describes Dee as “lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair.” She suggests, through her recollection of the burning of their first house, that Dee may have set the home on fire. Dee loathed the house, Mama tells us. During the fire, she stared at the engulfing flames with concentration, whereas Maggie regarded the scene with understandable horror.

During her teen years, Dee emphasized the importance of fashion. She wore a “yellow organdy dress” to her high school graduation and made her own green suit out of one that someone had given her mother. In this regard, she is as resourceful as Mama Johnson, but her resourcefulness is dedicated solely to the elevation of self.

Based on Mama’s recollections, Dee had few friends growing up. She seemed to intimidate everyone who came in contact with her. She was in a relationship with a young man named Jimmy T who left her to marry a girl from the city. Dee left town soon thereafter to attend school in Augusta, Georgia, using the funds that her mother had raised in church.

Her act of renaming herself Wangero is both an embrace of the contemporary Black Consciousness movement and yet another way in which she distinguishes herself from her mother and sister. She arrives home as though she has never lived there. She observes her mother and sister with her Polaroid camera from a distance, as though she were a visitor to a strange civilization. She looks at objects within their home as though they were artifacts that she seeks to collect. Her entitlement is an affront to Mama, who bestows the patchwork quilts that Dee desires on Maggie—both to show Dee that she knows no better than they how the items in their home ought to be used and to demonstrate that Dee’s advantages do not give her a superior understanding of the importance of heritage and tradition.

Hakim-a-barber

This character’s name is part of a longer one that Mama is unable to pronounce, so he allows Mama to call him “Hakim-a-barber.” Hakim is Wangero’s partner, though it is unclear what their relationship is. Mama wonders if they might be married, but she decides not to ask.

Hakim, like Wangero, arrives wearing an Afro. He also has a long beard. He identifies as a Muslim and greets Mama and Maggie by saying “Asalamalakim,” which they initially mistake for his name. When the four sit down for a meal, he refuses to eat the pork that Mama has prepared, in keeping with his Muslim principles. He greets Maggie with a “soul shake,” indicating that he, too, is a proponent of the Black Consciousness movement.

He is the only man who appears in the story. Other men—Maggie’s fiancé, John Thomas; Dee’s ex-boyfriend, Jimmy T; and the myriad white men who occasionally appear to intimidate Mama Johnson—are only discussed.

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