Everyday Use Analysis
- Through the characters of Dee and Hakim-a-barber, Alice Walker explores Afrocentricity, which came into vogue in the 1960s alongside the establishment of the Black Panther Party and the Black Arts Movement.
- While Dee embraces her African heritage, she rejects her family and upbringing as sources of shame. Ironically, self-sufficient Mama appears to be more liberated in terms of gender roles than Dee.
- Mama projects her sense of not living up to Dee’s expectations onto Maggie, who represents the family history of poverty and self-defeat that Dee disdains. In the end, though, it is Maggie whom Mama deems worthy of inheriting the quilts.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734
Though Walker never names the place in which Mama and Maggie live, the reader learns very quickly, from the first paragraph, that this is a rural place in the South. The sense that it is a place where “the breezes never come” tells us that new things seldom occur there. Mama’s later mention of having sent Dee to school in Augusta reveals that Mama and Maggie live somewhere in Georgia. For this story, Walker likely drew from her own Georgian agrarian roots. Her parents were sharecroppers. Walker later received a scholarship for disabled children (a childhood accident rendered her blind in her right eye) and attended Spelman College in Atlanta before transferring to Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Like Dee, Walker had been a part of social justice movements. In the late 1960s, she joined the civil rights struggle and married Mel Leventhal, a white, Jewish attorney. The couple settled in Jackson, Mississippi, where their interracial marriage became an object of denunciation. In the early 1970s, Walker left Mississippi and her marriage and joined feminist circles, befriending Gloria Steinem.
“Everyday Use” first appeared in Walker’s first short story collection, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973). By centering Black women in these stories, Walker announced her feminist sympathies. In “Everyday Use” she also explores the vogue of Afrocentricity. Maulana Ron Karenga had established Kwanzaa in 1966—the same year in which the Black Panther Party was established in Oakland; the year in which the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led by Stokely Carmichael, became decidedly radical; and the time in which Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka established the Black Arts Movement in the interest of bringing a uniquely Black aesthetic to literature and theater. During the 1960s, numerous African and Caribbean countries had declared independence from their European colonial rulers. African Americans learned about these movements and sometimes encountered African diplomats and university students in the US. This contact enriched their sensibility about what it meant to be Black. The character of Dee is meant to represent this shift in consciousness. The problem that Walker presents with the character is her wrongheaded belief that she must deny her mother and sister, who represent the poverty and backwardness that have been sources of shame for her, to prove that she is not a victim of racism.
Despite the appearance of Hakim-a-barber, whose character is intentionally undeveloped, there is a notable absence of men in “Everyday Use.” Men were the most visible figures of the Black Power movement. Dee’s espousal of that movement makes it necessary for her to show up to her mother’s farm accompanied by a man. Mama has freed herself from the strictures of gender—and defies them—while Dee has not.
Dee has always made her mother and sister feel that they were not good enough—a feeling that is only exacerbated when she visits. She appears in a new guise but is no less condescending. Only in a recurring daydream is there ever any peace between Mama and Dee. In this fantasy, Mama imagines going on a television show similar to Queen for a Day or This Is Your Life. On the show, Dee would gratefully embrace her mother and present her to the world. However, even in this fantasy, Mama appears the way Dee wants her to be—thinner, lighter-skinned, and straight-haired. Mama’s sense that Dee never approved of her big-boned body and darker skin contrasts with the image of the proponent of Black Power whom the reader later meets.
Mama transfers her sense of not being good enough to Maggie, who is also darker-skinned but is also, supposedly, not very bright. She is self-conscious about the burns on her body, which may have been caused by her sister. Thus, the damage that Dee has caused is both psychic and physical. While Maggie represents the cycle of poverty and self-defeat that has burdened the Johnson women, Dee is the child who made it and escaped. But, in her effort to make herself anew, she has decided to distinguish herself from Mama and Maggie. This eschewal of her family makes Dee’s sudden interest in all things related to her family and heritage seem strange to Mama. By refusing Dee the quilts, she asserts that Dee cannot share in a family heritage that she refuses to accept wholly.
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