Everyday Use

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Heritage and the Everyday Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Heritage and the Everyday Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Objects, Symbolism, and Writing Theme Icon
Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Everyday Use, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Heritage and the Everyday Theme Icon

Heritage, and its relationship to daily life, is the central question that Walker explores in “Everyday Use.” Through the eyes of Mama, and through the contrasting characters of Dee and Maggie, Walker offers two varying views of what family history, the past, and “heritage” really mean.

In Dee’s view, heritage is a kind of dead past, distanced from the present through nostalgia and aestheticization (which means reducing something to a symbol or piece of art, and so removing other meanings and uses from it). Dee rejects the parts of her heritage that belong to the immediate past or, even, are still present in the family’s everyday life. Because of this, she disdains her sister and mother’s life on the farm, their continued use of family heirlooms, and their ancestral house. Dee shows her anger towards this immediate past in her happiness when their house burned, her readiness to leave her home behind when she went to college, and her lack of interest in learning family skills like sewing. Instead of this immediate heritage, Dee idealizes an African culture that she only shallowly understands, one that predates her family’s history in the United States and the history of slavery. She chooses that culture as the basis for her “heritage,” calling herself by the African name “Wangero” and altering her style of dress. When Dee returns to her home as an adult, she attempts to make her immediate past as distant and imaginary as this African one. Dee photographs her family and their house, turning them into art-objects, and insists on taking home the family’s heirlooms—a hand-carved and well used butter churn, her grandmother’s quilts—to display as decorations and artifacts in her house. She doesn’t want to actually live in the house with her family or use the objects, only idealize them as memorabilia—hollow signs of heritage that have no connection with her real life.

Overall, Walker seems to criticize this imagined, distant view of heritage. She depicts Dee’s quaint, aestheticized vision of her family and their still-living customs as cold, elitist, and hurtful. Mama resents Dee for her attempts to put their lifestyle firmly in the past, and Dee’s meanness in this respect can be seen in the way she laughs at and looks down on Maggie for her appreciation of the family history. Moreover, Walker suggests that Dee’s view of heritage is utterly misguided and uninformed. For instance, Dee believes that she is named after white “oppressors,” when in fact she is named after her beloved Aunt Dicie.

Mama and Maggie, on the other hand, exemplify the alternative view of heritage that Walker proposes— one in which heritage is a part of everyday life, fluid and constantly being added to and changed. Mama and Maggie have no higher education or knowledge of Africa, but they do appreciate their more immediate roots: their house, their family heirlooms, their traditions. The quilts, which Dee wants to display as art, Maggie would put to “everyday use,” using them as blankets, putting them on beds—the way they were intended to be used. Maggie, unlike Dee, also learned to sew from her grandmother, and so can add to the family collection, pass on her skills, and keep the tradition alive.

In refusing to give the quilts to Dee and instead giving them to Maggie, Mama rejects Dee’s idealized view of heritage and instead embraces a relationship to heritage that is dynamic and continually developing. Though perhaps Mama and Maggie’s view of heritage could also be enriched by education and knowledge of their African roots, the fact that they don’t distance themselves from their family history makes their understanding of heritage more real and significant than Dee’s. As a result, Dee’s accusation that Mama does not “understand” their heritage rings as bitterly ironic, since Walker has made it clear that Dee is the one out of touch with her family’s way of life.

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Heritage and the Everyday ThemeTracker

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Heritage and the Everyday Quotes in Everyday Use

Below you will find the important quotes in Everyday Use related to the theme of Heritage and the Everyday.
Everyday Use Quotes

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.

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‘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.