Everyday Use

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Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harcourt edition of Everyday Use published in 2001.
Everyday Use Quotes

Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head turned in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee
Related Symbols: Eye contact / Vision / Gaze
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

Mama, having just imagined a happy, televised reconciliation between herself and Dee, here dismisses her own hopeful vision. Mama’s internalized racism and lack of self-confidence prevent her from making up with her daughter, or becoming someone she thinks her daughter might like or admire. When Mama asks, “who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue?” she implies that something about her nature (rather than, say, her lack of education) prevents her from being witty. Likewise, Mama’s fear of white people can be seen in how she talks to white people always with “one foot raised in flight.”

Walker uses eye contact to show the intensity of the racial power dynamics at play in the story. Mama does not believe anyone could even “imagine” her looking a white man in the eye, showing that her sense of race and the limitations it imposes cannot even be transcended by the powers of imagination. Even in her wildest dreams, or the wildest dreams of others, Mama cannot look a strange white man in the eye. Mama’s sense of race as a limiting factor in her own life is so deeply rooted that it ruins even her fantasies, and prevents her from a real life reconciliation with Dee.

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How long ago was it the house burned? Ten, twelve years? 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. And Dee…Why don’t you dance around the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated that house so much.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee , Maggie
Related Symbols: The House, Eye contact / Vision / Gaze
Page Number: 49-50
Explanation and Analysis:

Mama, who is reminiscing before Dee arrives for her visit, describes the terrible house fire that burnt down their ancestral home several years ago. The memory of the fire, which Mama brings up several times throughout the story, clearly still terrorizes the family. Mama still “hears” the flames, experiencing a kind of synesthesia (a phenomenon where one’s senses become muddled).

Notably, many of the material things from which Dee derives her sense of self (hair, clothing) were lost to Maggie in that fire, perhaps accounting for Maggie’s apathy toward these modes of self-expression. Maggie’s eyes reflect the flames as she burns, showing how her gaze, which for Dee is a form of resistance, is undermined by the memory of the fire. Mama and Maggie’s skepticism towards Dee’s attitude that objects should be preserved might also come, in part, from the fire, where their great material loss was arbitrary and unrelated to whether they used their possessions or not.

Mama’s resentment towards Dee becomes evident as she bitterly suggests that Dee, who hated the house, would have liked to “dance around the ashes.” Mama shows how the house, while beloved and the center of the family’s heritage, is also the site of trauma—both the physical trauma of the fire and the emotional trauma of Dee’s hatred for it.

She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee , Maggie
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

As Mama describes the various consequences of Dee’s transformation, she talks about the experience of Dee reading to her and to Maggie. Although Dee’s reading to her family might seem like it would be a loving, bonding activity, Mama’s description suggests that it was instead hurtful to herself and to Maggie. Mama describes Dee’s reading as “forcing words, lies” and keeping Mama and Maggie “trapped and ignorant underneath her voice,” essentially equating the way Dee read to them as a violent, oppressive act. Dee’s reading drew her family in only to reject them for their ignorance and inability to understand at her level, and this rejection pains Mama.

Moreover, Dee’s reading forced Mama to face her daughter’s wish for a different family and a different life, as Dee attempts to put “other folks’ habits” and “whole lives upon” her mother and sister. Mama even connects Dee’s reading to the deeply traumatic house fire when she says Dee “burned” them with unnecessary information. To Mama, it seems, watching her daughter develop the capacity to resent her life and her family constituted a deep trauma in itself.

I never had an education myself. After second grade the school closed down. Don’t ask me why: in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

As Mama contrasts her own education history with the college-educated Dee’s, her language suggests some of the functions of education. When Mama says she never had an education as a result of her school’s closure, she correlates this lack with her inability to ask questions. As a child, Mama says, “colored asked fewer questions than they do now,” implying that their inability to ask questions prevented them from fighting back against the school closing. She also suggests that her inability to question her social, economic, and racial conditions is a result of the time in which she grew up— a time when few African-Americans received an education.

In doing so, Mama suggests the cyclic relationship between oppression and a lack of education. She implies that there is an intimate link between education and the ability to question and criticize the structure of one’s life, including racism.

A dress down to the ground, in this hot weather. A dress so loud it hurts my eyes… Earrings gold, too, and hanging down to her shoulders. Bracelets dangling and making noises when she moves to shake the folds of her dress out of her armpits. The dress is loose and flows, and as she walks closer, I like it.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

When Dee finally arrives at the house, she steps out of the car and Mama takes in her outfit. As Mama evaluates Dee’s clothes, she takes note of their lack of practicality (“in this weather,” Mama thinks, suggesting that the weather calls for different garb). Mama uses words to describe Dee’s clothing that evoke a sense of Dee’s style as literally and metaphorically noisy—Dee’s dress is “so loud” and her bracelets make “noises,” reflecting Dee’s own outspokenness. Taking “loud” to literally mean colorful, Dee’s dress is so bright that it “hurts” her mother’s eyes, and once again Walker ties Dee’s self-expression to her mother’s pain.

Still, Mama, after an entire paragraph describing her daughter’s appearance, decides in the last two words of the last sentence that she “like[s] it.” Mama’s admiration of her daughter’s dress seems to be an active decision, suggesting Mama’s desperation that they reconcile. In this quote, Walker shows how material objects can show personality and evoke a personal history that means different things to different people. To Dee, the dress is liberation and self-expression, and to Mama, the dress sorely evokes the difference between herself and her daughter, and affords the possibility of reconciliation.

She stoops down quickly and lines up picture after picture of me sitting there in front of the house with Maggie cowering behind me. She never takes a shot without making sure the house is included. When a cow comes nibbling around the edge of the yard she snaps it and me and Maggie and the house.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee , Maggie
Related Symbols: The House
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Dee, having just arrived at Mama and Maggie’s house, gets right down to the business of picture taking. But rather than talking pictures of the family interacting, or including herself or Hakim-a-barber in the photos, Dee insists on taking pictures of Mama and Maggie with their house, with Mama sitting and Maggie standing, and with a cow. In doing so, Dee seems to be posing the family as part of the rural landscape they live in, rather than people with dynamic lives. Such a photo, in which Mama is sitting and static, seems to fundamentally misrepresent the life of a hardworking farmer who is constantly working and moving.

The purpose of Dee’s photograph, as revealed by her instance of rendering her family as part of a rural landscape, seems not to be to represent the lives of Mama and Maggie, but rather to turn her vision of them into a two-dimensional photograph for display. Dee insists on using Mama and Maggie to represent her vision of their lives, rather than to understand them as they are.

‘What happened to Dee?’ I wanted to know.
‘She’s dead,’ Wangero said. ‘I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.’

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

After Mama greets Dee as “Dee,” Dee corrects her, telling her instead to call her by the African name “Wangero.” Dee tries to explain to Mama why she made this choice. As the discussion goes on, Mama responds that Dee is, in fact, named after her female ancestors.

This disagreement shows the difference in Mama and Dee’s worldview, and their respective understandings of the relationship between family history and racism. To Dee, resisting racism means erasing the personal and family history intertwined with it, and returning to something that predates it. Mama, however, sees the erasure of that history as a loss of personal identity and connection to family.

When Dee says that Dee is “dead,” she is effectively confirming Mama’s fears: losing her name allows Dee to cast off the identity that she has always loathed, the identity that connects her to Mama and the rest of the family. But what Dee views as liberation, Mama understands as grief.

You didn’t even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood. In fact, there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood. It was a beautiful light yellow wood, from a tree that grew in the yard where Big Dee and Stash lived.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Mama examines the dasher while Dee, who intends to use it as a decoration, packs it up to take home. Mama’s thoughts as Dee wraps up the dasher reveal the complex way that Mama understands her family’s heirlooms. She sees the marks of use from hands moving the dasher, the evidence of physical labor and human interaction. Mama, who is herself a hard worker, understands how the dasher is used, and can picture how others might have used the piece.

When Mama looks at the dasher, she sees not only a decorative object, but a whole system of meaning— the color of the wood evokes memories of her relatives’ house, the sinks allow her to picture its use by her ancestors, and the thought of Big Dee perhaps reminds of her other relatives. To Mama a deep, lived familiarity with how these objects work and where they come from is necessary to connect with the family history contained within them.

Maggie can’t appreciate those quilts! ...She’s probably backward enough to put them into everyday use.

Related Characters: Dee (speaker), Mama, Maggie
Related Symbols: Quilts
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Dee speaks this quote to Mama as she and Mama argue over whether Dee or Maggie should keep their grandmother’s hand-stitched quilts. Dee, who would like to hang them on her walls, believes she should keep them. Dee argues that Maggie is “backward enough” to put the quilts to “everyday use”—which is to say, to use them as blankets—as their grandmother presumably intended the quilts to be used.

When Dee describes Maggie as “backward,” she essentially betrays her contempt of the very culture that she supposedly wants to venerate and preserve—the rural life that her ancestors come from, and that Mama and Maggie still live. Dee fails to see Maggie’s use of the quilts as appreciation, and sets appreciation in contrast with “everyday use.” For Dee, appreciating her heritage means exiling it to the past, rather than continuing to interact with it in her everyday life. This quote is significant because it reveals many of the hypocrisies contained in Dee’s worldview.

‘You just don’t understand,’ she said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
‘What don’t I understand?’ I wanted to know.
‘Your heritage,’ she said.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Dee (speaker), Maggie
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote follows Dee and Mama’s argument over the quilts, and Mama’s decision to give them to Maggie. After all that has transpired, Dee’s assertion that Mama and Maggie do not “understand” their heritage is extremely ironic—since Walker has, by this point in the story, made it abundantly clear that it is Dee who is out of touch with her family’s way of life. Dee’s utter lack of understanding contrasts with her rigorous education, suggesting that “understanding” and education might be two distinct systems of knowledge. “Understanding” seems to be what Mama has—a genuine connection with her family’s customs and the people in her life.

Dee, on the other hand, and despite her formal education, lacks the ability to engage authentically with her culture, and instead favors a deadened, aestheticized, decorative version of it. Since the story’s sympathies seem to lie with Mama, Walker implies that “understanding” may be just as, if not more, important than formal education when engaging with one’s own identity.

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