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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The thematic richness of “Everyday Use” is made possible by the flexible, perceptive voice of the first-person narrator. It is the mother’s point of view that permits the reader’s understanding of both Dee and Maggie. Seen from a greater distance, both young women might seem stereotypical—one a smart but ruthless college girl, the other a sweet but ineffectual homebody. The mother’s close scrutiny redeems Dee and Maggie, as characters, from banality.

For example, Maggie’s shyness is explained in terms of the terrible fire she survived: “Sometimes I can still hear the flames and feel Maggie’s arms sticking to me, her hair smoking and her dress falling off her in little black papery flakes. Her eyes seemed stretched open, blazed open by the flames reflected in them.” Ever since, “she has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle.” In Dee’s case, the reader learns that as she was growing up, the high demands she made of others tended to drive people away. She had few friends, and her one boyfriend “flew to marry a cheap city girl from a family of ignorant flashy people” after Dee “turned all her faultfinding power on him.” Her drive for a better life has cost Dee dearly, and her mother’s commentary reveals that Dee, too, has scars, though they are less visible than Maggie’s.

In addition to the skillful use of point of view, “Everyday Use” is enriched by Alice Walker’s development of symbols. In particular, the contested quilts become symbolic of the story’s theme; in a sense, they represent the past of the women in the family. Worked on by two generations, they contain bits of fabric from even earlier eras, including a scrap of a Civil War uniform worn by Great Grandpa Ezra. The debate over how the quilts should be treated—used or hung on the wall—summarizes the black woman’s dilemma about how to face the future. Can her life be seen as continuous with that of her ancestors? For Maggie, the answer is yes. Not only will she use the quilts, but also she will go on making more—she has learned the skill from Grandma Dee. For Dee, at least for the present, the answer is no. She would frame the quilts and hang them on the wall, distancing them from her present life and aspirations; to put them to everyday use would be to admit her status as a member of her old-fashioned family.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Black Power Movement
Even before their emancipation from slavery, African Americans struggled to define their collective identity within the framework of American society. Even after slavery was outlawed, blacks gained the right to vote, and legal decisions dismantled formal segregation, true equality was far from reality. By the 1960s, following the success of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, some African Americans began to take pride in their heritage as a way of bolstering their esteem, forging a group identity, and creating a platform for greater political power. Known as "black pride" or Black Nationalism, these ideas encouraged many young African Americans to learn about their cultural ancestry, grow their hair into "Afros," dress in traditional African clothing, and reject their "slave names" (as Malcolm X called most blacks' given names). Many of these tendencies are exhibited by Dee and Hakim-a-barber in "Everyday Use." The Black Panthers, led by former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee president Stokely Carmichael, embodied these ideas in their ''black power'' slogan as they fought for civil rights and voter registration. However, by the early 1970s, many of these organizations were accused of discrimination against women in the way they were organized and run, and writers like Walker sought to portray the voice of the black woman apart from a larger political context.

The Nation of Islam
Another form of African American self-assertion that gained popularity in the early 1970s was the Nation of Islam, a religious and political organization...

(The entire section is 2,155 words.)