In Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use”, the characters Dee, Maggie and Mama go through transformations around the theme of identity and heritage. Maggie and Mama experience internal change, while Dee’s transformation is superficial and showy, disguised as intellectual enlightenment. The story serves as a commentary on African American heritage and identity, and is told from Mama’s point of view. The quilts and other household rural items are cast as symbols of identity and personal history. While Dee has exchanged her southern, rural, African American identity for an invented African name and clothes, Mama and Dee finally find peace and acceptance of their past and lifestyle choices.
The setting for the story and family origin is in southern rural United States, of which Dee is ashamed and tries to escape. She tells her sister and mother that she will come to visit them regardless of the shabby conditions of their home, but she will not come with friends, which shows her embarrassment. Later in the story, she does come accompanied by a boyfriend, but with ulterior motives of carrying off household heirlooms, quilts and a butter dasher, that have been handed down through generations. Dee’s condescending attitude is depicted until the very end of the story as she admonishes her two family members’ style of living. Also, when she arrives to the house she condescendingly kisses her mother on the forehead, as if she were the child and not Dee. She arrives and announces she is now Wangero, not Dee, a superficial African identity that further separates her from her roots. Because Dee does not understand or appreciate her past, she reinvents herself with an intellectually superior identity. Sadly, her real name is also a matter of heritage, it has been passed down for generations while her new name is obscure both culturally and historically.
The quilts are a symbol of sisterhood, family, tradition, and heritage. Velasquez explains that the quilts “are made up of fragments of history, of scraps of dresses, shirts, and uniforms, each of which represents those people who forged the family’s culture, its heritage, and its values.” The two sisters relate to the quilts and their heritage in divergent ways. Maggie was taught to quilt by her grandmother and aunt, while Dee viewed them as old-fashioned and never took an interest in them until now. Ironically, Dee believes that she should have the quilts because Maggie will not know how to appreciate them. When Mama takes the quilts away from Dee and places them in Maggie’s lap, the younger daughter is shocked but later beams with happiness: “Maggie smiled…but a real smile, not scared.” Maggie finally feels recognized and validated.
In comparison, Mama’s character undergoes a sudden transformation from passive to active that is encapsulated in the climatic act of denying her older daughter and defending the younger one. When Dee attempts to take the quilts, Mama realizes her younger daughter Maggie’s self-worth while at the same time seeing Dee’s inability to appreciate her heritage. Literary critic Nancy Tuten discusses how Mama takes control of her wits by realizing Dee’s failure to connect with the important aspects of their family history (127). Likewise, Mama recounts “I did something I never done before” which is to say no to her older daughter. This event marks a change in her attitude toward her two daughters and herself, acting with justice and awareness of what is fair between the sisters. Here, Mama’s role transforms into an active force instead of the passive narrator she occupies during the majority of the short story.
Alice Walker’s simple story “Everyday Use” is a snapshot of how two of three family members come to peace with their past, heritage and personal identity although having been made to feel inferior by the third member. In a simple climactic act, Maggie and Mama find themselves and the story finishes happily as the two women end the day together in calm acceptance.