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...
(The entire section is 1,196 words.)