Everyday Use

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice 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.
Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice Theme Icon

Race structures the social and economic conditions of characters’ daily lives in “Everyday Use.” From the first few paragraphs, Walker makes it clear that the oppression of African-Americans is built into the society of the Deep South, where Mama and Maggie live. This injustice manifests itself in a multitude of ways, ranging from Mama’s inability to look “a strange white man in the eye” to her mentions of racialized violence, like the time when “the white folks” poisoned her neighbor’s herd of cattle.

While Mama has a keen way of taking note of the racism she experiences, she also seems unable to combat it, and simply accepts its effects as inevitable. For example, after Mama mentions that she did not go to school after the second grade, she states that “in 1927 colored asked fewer questions than they do now.” Mama implies that she, unlike Dee, was not taught to criticize or struggle against her community’s racial conditions. Moreover, when Mama mentions encountering racism, she talks about it as a precondition of her story, a part of the structure of her life rather than a changeable content of it. When Mama talks about her neighbor’s cows being poisoned, the racist violence of this anecdote is not the point of the story— it is part of the background information. To Mama, racism is an unfortunate reality, a part of the unchangeable structure of her life.

Dee acts as a foil (a character whose qualities contrast with and therefore highlight another character’s qualities) to Mama in this respect. Dee, unlike Mama, actively challenges the racial status quo, refusing to accept it as inevitable. Unlike Mama, who cannot even imagine herself “looking a strange white man in the eye,” Dee “would always look anyone in the eye.” Dee’s gaze undermines the expectation in her community that African-Americans should behave with deference towards white people. Moreover, Dee attempts to forge a new, African identity for herself as “Wangero,” stating that the name “Dee” attaches her to a history of oppression she would rather reject.

But despite Dee’s attempts to transcend the racial expectations of her community and time period, racism, and the family’s differing ways of reacting to it, still manages to sour the family’s bonds, especially Mama and Dee’s. Even in Mama’s fantasy of reconciliation with Dee at the story’s opening, differing attitudes towards race dispel the possibility of reunion. When Mama daydreams about going on the Johnny Carson TV show with Dee, she imagines them hugging and pictures herself “the way [her] daughter would want [her] to be,” with a “quick and witty tongue” that Johnny Carson can barely keep up with. This image, however, devolves when Mama thinks “who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye?” Mama’s internalized racism and life of hardship makes her unable to be someone Dee would presumably be proud of, and so unable to truly reconcile with Dee. Through this broken fantasy, Walker articulates how racism destroys relationships not only between white people and African-Americans, but also between African-Americans themselves.

The legacy of racism also drives Dee away from not just Mama, but her whole family history. Dee believes that in order to liberate herself from racial injustice, she must also distance herself from the history of slavery and African-American oppression—a history closely tied to her family’s story. For example, when Dee rejects her given name for an African one, she says it is because, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” Dee believes that she must reject her given name in order reject its history of oppression. Unfortunately, as Mama points out, Dee is actually named after her beloved aunt Dicie. Dee’s attempt to reject the past means also rejecting her ancestors who lived in it. Essentially, Dee is forced to choose between rejecting the history of racial oppression and keeping her personal identity and familial connections. Walker uses Dee to exemplify a difficulty that not just she, but African-Americans in general might face: untangling contemporary identity from a history of slavery and racism. “Everyday Use” understands the legacy of racism as difficult to disrupt, in part because this legacy troublingly links African-American identity and history with oppression.

Get the entire Everyday Use LitChart as a printable PDF.
Everyday use.pdf.medium

Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice appears in each chapter of Everyday Use. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:

Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice Quotes in Everyday Use

Below you will find the important quotes in Everyday Use related to the theme of Racism, Resistance, and Sacrifice.
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.

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Everyday Use quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

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.

‘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.