Everyday Use Themes
The main themes in Alice Walker's “Everyday Use” are the Black Consciousness movement, rural versus urban Black identity, and tradition, heritage, and ownership.
- The Black Consciousness movement: While Dee embraces the Black Consciousness movement and her African roots, she distances herself from her family and upbringing.
- Rural versus urban Black identity: The strained relationship between Mama, Maggie, and Dee emphasizes the divide between rural and urban Black life.
- Tradition, heritage, and ownership: Dee believes that her education gives her rightful ownership of the family quilts, but Mama bestows the quilts on Maggie, who retains a more authentic connection to the family’s cultural heritage.
The Black Consciousness Movement
Alice Walker published “Everyday Use” in 1973, in the midst of the Black Power movement. When Dee and her companion, Hakim-a-barber, emerge from their car, the reader is meant to understand that Dee’s loud yellow and orange dress, as well as her and Hakim-a-barber’s Afros, are signs of their identification with the movement, which encouraged its proponents to don African garb and to wear their hair in “natural,” or Afro, styles. To Mama and Maggie, the couple looks foreign and unkempt. They never occur to Mama and Maggie as two people who are using their bodies as markers of transgression from white standards of beauty and decorum.
Though the Black Consciousness movement was a positive thing, due to its unapologetic embrace of Black identity and its urge to connect with the African diaspora, Walker complicates what might have been the reader’s unquestioned appreciation of the movement by making Dee exemplary of it. Dee, Mama tells us, is someone who has always known what style is. This suggests that she is someone who prioritizes whatever is in fashion. Mama and Maggie never know what is in fashion, which leads them to believe that Dee’s sense of style is uniquely her own.
When Dee arrives at the farm, she is fascinated by the rustic objects in Mama’s home, as though she’s seeing them for the first time. The bench, the churn, and the dasher have always been there, but her embrace of Black Consciousness turns them suddenly into objects of interest. Dee claims to embrace her heritage, but she rejects her given name, which was passed down to her through her matrilineal line. Most importantly, Dee now insists on having her mother’s patchwork quilts, which Mama unsuccessfully attempted to give Dee before she left for college. Then, Dee declared the quilts “old-fashioned, out of style.”
The irony about Dee’s embrace of Black Consciousness is her lack of consciousness. She casts herself as superior to Mama and Maggie due to her education, thereby reinforcing a class hierarchy antithetical to the Black Power movement. She rejects their rural lifestyle while also seeking to connect with her enslaved ancestors by owning the quilts. She accuses Mama and Maggie of not knowing their heritage while rejecting key aspects of her own—that is, her given name and her connection to agrarian life.
Rural versus Urban Black Identity
Mama and Maggie live in a three-room house with no windows. The house is in a pasture, where Mama maintains livestock. Their yard is “like an extended living room,” meaning that, for them, there is little delineation between indoor and outdoor space. Mama narrates that she “can work outside all day,” wash with ice, and cook pork over the open fire after killing and cleaning the hog herself. Mama asserts her independence and resourcefulness without bragging about it. There is no man in the three-room house, and the reader knows that Mama doesn’t need one, due to her “man-working hands.” Walker establishes Mama and Maggie’s rural lifestyle as one characterized by a resourcefulness that urban Black people like Dee overlook. Worse, Dee views rural life as both backward and quaint. Mama and Maggie are oblivious, she thinks, to the changes in the world. The common objects that Mama and Maggie put to daily use—quilts and churns—are, for Dee, antiques for display.
Walker uses the difference with which the women look at objects to signify the division between rural Black life and urban Black life. The difference is also illustrated when Dee’s partner, Hakim-a-barber, tries to give Maggie the “soul shake,” but both Maggie and...
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Mama are clueless about what he’s trying to do. What had become a convention in the urban Black world didn’t make sense in the rural one. As a result, Mama figures that he doesn’t know how to shake hands properly. Maggie’s lack of hipness is read by Mama as Hakim-a-barber’s lack of proper manners.
Black people who moved to the cities, like Dee, became disconnected from their agrarian roots and developed a different relationship to space. While Maggie and Mama see the area outside of their house as being as much theirs as the house itself, Dee is focused on interiors: the churn is for her alcove table, and the patchwork quilts, she insists, should be hung. These are choices that she is able to make regarding how to organize her domestic space. She mistakenly equates her ability to make these choices with Mama and Maggie’s “choice” to remain on the farm. Dee is oblivious to the ways in which poverty and racism have made another way of life unthinkable.
Dee’s urbanity has also instilled in her a more conventional approach to domesticity and urbanity. While Mama is characterized by her masculine strength and her inability to exhibit a more palatable mode of Black feminine identity—that is, to be “a hundred pounds lighter” with lighter skin—Dee arrives at the farm in the company of a man and still wears a dress. Mama, on the other hand, wears overalls during the day. Though Dee thinks that she is more sophisticated, she reiterates the gender conventions that were instituted by the oppressor that she frequently mentions. It is Mama, unable to be the way Dee wants her to be, who is the less conventional figure in the context of their time.
Tradition, Heritage, and Ownership
One of the central questions in the story is this: Who defines Black heritage? Is it those who have the education to understand the legacy of slavery, or is it those who have remained close to the ancestral lands in the South?
Dee thinks that she is more deserving of the quilts than Maggie because she knows, as a result of having attended college, that the patchwork quilts have historical significance. In her view, her knowledge should supersede Mama’s promise to give the quilts to Maggie as a wedding present. By asserting her choice to give the quilts to Maggie, Mama maintains the tradition of handing them down to future generations—Maggie’s impending wedding carries the presumption that there will be future children—and she rejects Dee’s assumption that she knows better about how things ought to be put to use.
Dee asserts an attitude of entitlement soon after she arrives at the farm. She begins snapping Polaroids of Mama and Maggie without first asking for permission. This action turns her mother and sister into spectacles. They, like the churn and dasher and the quilts, are objects of interest—relics of a past to which Dee seeks connection, though she can only do so by establishing possession.
Dee’s method of connecting with her heritage is inauthentic because she can only make the connection through objects. She is far less interested in the lived experiences of other people, which is what the objects represent. This latter tendency means that she cannot understand heritage. Worse, her need to distinguish herself from Mama and Maggie also means that she is not yet ready to embrace the family that produced the quilts.