Mama, an elderly black woman and the first-person narrator, begins the story by saying that she is waiting for her daughter Dee in the yard of her house, which she cleaned the day before in preparation for her visit. Mama goes on to describe the yard, saying it is like a living room, with the ground swept clean like a floor. Mama’s younger daughter, Maggie, is also waiting for Dee. Mama describes Maggie as “homely,” “hopeless,” and “ashamed,” and predicts that Maggie will be nervous until after Dee’s visit is over, as Maggie will look at Dee with “a mixture of envy and awe.”
Walker establishes that Mama is hard working and devoted by describing how Mama painstakingly cleaned the yard for Dee’s arrival. Mama also shows her sense of attachment towards her domestic space. This space includes the yard, which to Mama is an extension of her house— she describes it affectionately as a “living room.” Meanwhile, Maggie’s deep insecurity is immediately clear, as Mama uses words like “homely,” “ashamed,” and “hopeless” to describe her. Maggie’s nervousness about her sister’s visit implies that their relationship is somewhat strained.
Mama describes television shows in which “a child who has ‘made it’” confronts her parents. On these shows, Mama says, the meeting is pleasant, warm, and loving. Mama fantasizes about making up with her daughter, Dee, on such a television show (it’s not yet clear why Mama and her daughter need to reconcile). Mama pictures herself stepping out of a limousine and talking to a television host similar to Johnny Carson. In her daydream, she and Dee hug, with tears in their eyes. Dee gives her mother an orchid, even though Dee once told her mother that orchids are “tacky.”
When Mama describes her daydream of reconciling with her daughter and all the joy and love that accompanies it, the reader can infer that their relationship thus far has been the opposite of what she describes. In Mama’s wildest fantasies, her reconciliation with her daughter coincides with visions of material wealth (she steps out of a limousine, for example) that do not, apparently, reflect her reality. Walker underlines the dream’s fragility when Mama imagines Dee giving her an orchid, despite the fact that she knows Dee hates that kind of flower in real life. The orchid, as an object, stands in for the gap between Mama’s fantasies and her reality.
Mama transitions into describing herself and her real daily life: the way she can work outside all day, her “rough, man-working hands,” the way she handles cattle. Mama discusses her simple clothing (flannel nightgowns and overalls) and her farm life.
As Mama describes her life, it becomes even clearer that her reality is far from television-ready. Mama’s sense of self seems primarily connected to what she can do rather than how she looks. For example, Mama’s clothes are primarily practical rather than stylish.
But in her mind, Mama’s real personhood “doesn’t show on television.” Instead, Mama pictures herself on the show as a slimmer woman, with glistening skin and a witty manner. Mama’s vision of her television reconciliation with Dee breaks as she contrasts herself as she is in real life—homely, hardworking—with how she imagines herself on such a show—glamorous, confident. Dee, Mama imagines, would never be proud of her as she is. Anyway, thinks Mama, she would be unable to make eye contact with a white, male host. Dee, on the other hand, could make eye contact with anyone.
Mama recognizes the schism between who she is and who she would have to be on such a television show, and thus (presumably) to be loved by Dee. Specifically, when Mama mentions her inability to make eye contact with white men, she connects her own internalized racism with her failure to reconcile with her daughter. Dee’s ability to make eye contact with white men, and thus to challenge the racial expectations of her time, sets her apart from her mother, and indicates both her own sense of empowerment and how that empowerment estranges her from her family. Eye contact, which Walker uses symbolically for the first time here, is presented as an equalizing force, and stands in for resistance to racism— a significance which will become complicated as the story progresses.
Maggie, Mama’s younger daughter, interrupts Mama’s musings, asking her mother how she looks in her pink skirt and red blouse, both of which are too big for her. Mama tells Maggie to join her in the yard. As she does so, Mama observes Maggie’s plain appearance and limping gait, which she says is similar to that of a dog recently hit by “someone rich enough to own a car.” Mama contrasts Maggie’s unattractive appearance and timid carriage with her sister’s good looks and self-confidence. Dee is better proportioned than her sister, and has nicer hair.
As Walker presents Maggie a second time, she emphasizes her lack of self-confidence even more profoundly. Rather than Maggie wearing her clothes, the clothes seem to wear Maggie—they dwarf and obscure Maggie, rendering her shapeless, and giving the reader the sense that Maggie lacks control over the image she projects. When Mama describes the way Maggie walks, she describes Maggie as a wounded animal, highlighting Maggie’s lowly way of carrying herself. When Mama goes on to compare Dee to Maggie, the reader gets the sense that Maggie lives in Dee’s shadow, constantly compared to her prettier, more successful sister, even by her own mother.
Mama notes that Maggie’s submissiveness first became a problem after their old house burned down. She wonders how long it has been since that traumatic event. Mama then vividly flashes back to that house fire, which completely destroyed their ancestral family home. Mama remembers Maggie’s hair burning and her dress disintegrating into soot. She thinks about the way the flames reflected in Maggie’s eyes. Dee was outside of the house when the fire happened, and Mama remembers her watching it from under a tree in the yard. Resentfully, Mama thinks that Dee probably wanted to dance when the house burned.
The house fire Mama describes clearly traumatized the family, and she repeatedly refers back to the fire throughout the story. In Mama’s flashbacks, she and Maggie were clearly most in danger due to the fire, while Dee watched it from outside. The memory of the fire complicates the symbol of the house as a site of familial love and history, turning the house also into a site of trauma and pain, muddling its joyful image. The fire also seems to have exacerbated Mama’s resentment for Dee for hating their house, which was so loved by Mama and Maggie. It is confusing and embittering that a memory which is so painful for Mama and Maggie could have been a source of liberation and joy for Dee.
But it wasn’t only the house Dee hated. Mama remembers how, as a child, Dee also hated Maggie. Once Mama and their church raised money for Dee’s education, however, Dee’s resentment lessened. Still, Mama thinks, after Dee became educated, she harbored an intense resentment towards her family. When Dee would read to Mama and Maggie, it was like she was “forcing words, lies, other folk’s habits, whole lives upon us two.” Mama describes Dee’s prickliness and impatience in reading to her family at length.
Mama’s flashback to the fire triggers a whole series of remembrances of how Dee has hurt her mother and sister over the years. Walker continues to build the sense that Mama and Dee’s relationship is extremely tense as she describes the gap in education between them. Mama notes that she and her church paid for Dee’s education, and so she perceives a stinging lack of gratitude from Dee. Dee’s act of reading to Mama and Maggie is described not as a kindness, but a kind of violence against them, which Walker shows through her choice of aggressive, painful language (burning, forcing, etc.). Walker shows Dee’s education, while liberating for her, to be oppressive and degrading to her family.
Mama also mentions Dee’s childhood desire for high quality clothing and other “nice things” to reflect her personal style. She wanted, Mama remembers, shoes to match her dresses, and a new, brightly colored graduation dress.
Mama suggests that Dee’s desire for “nice things” set her apart from her family as a teenager. Repeatedly, Walker uses differing relationships to objects to establish character. Compared to Maggie, for example, Dee comes across as an aesthetically driven, sophisticated person, with profound interest in expressing herself and her difference from her family.
Unlike Dee, Mama never had an education. Unfortunately for her, Mama’s school closed down after the second grade. Mournfully, Mama blames her inability to ask questions on her lack of education. In this respect, she contrasts herself with Dee, whose education allows her to be critical of her environment. Maggie, unlike her mother, is literate, and reads to Mama in their spare time, but she doesn’t read particularly well— certainly not as well as Dee.
In this section, Mama connects her lack of education with her inability to question the social conditions that structure her reality. She sets up the idea that education is part of how Dee became such an outspoken opponent to the racism she experiences. In Mama’s mind, education has afforded Dee the ability to question the boundaries of her reality, while Mama’s lack thereof prevents her from daring to do so. Maggie’s existence, however, seems to temper this assumption somewhat, as she has received some limited education (she can read), but lacks the self-confidence and natural intellect to assert herself and demand change.
Mama turns her back on the house, remarking on its similarity to the house that came before it— the house that burned down. She takes in the tin roof, the windows without glass in them. Mama thinks that when Dee arrives, she will want to tear it down. Mama remembers how Dee was ashamed of the house, and how she refused to bring friends there.
Once again, Mama thinks about the house in a way that both emphasizes her affection for it (she takes in all the details with an attentive consideration) and her sense of trauma associated with it (she constantly compares it to their house that burned down). The house continues to be a symbol of simultaneous love and trauma, and a site of resentment between Mama and Dee. Dee’s shame about the house and the way her family lives, manifested in her refusal to bring friends there, adds to the sense of the house as a fraught place.
Not, Mama thinks, that Dee had many friends. But she did have a few. Mama remembers them— “furtive” boys and “nervous” girls, who were impressed by how Dee carried herself, and by Dee’s reading. She remembers also a lover of Dee’s, who left her for a “city girl.”
This section allows Walker to cast a slightly more sympathetic light on Dee, as we see her not only as an antagonist to her devoted family, but also as a lonely child who had trouble making friends. This section helps to humanize Dee, and also to adjust our view on Dee’s education, which not only helped her to fight racism and buy expensive things, but also to make friends.
Mama’s reminiscing stops when, at last, Dee and her partner (Mama is unsure if they are married or not), Hakim-a-Barber, arrive at the house. As they pull up in their car, Maggie tries to retreat into the house, but Mama stops her. Dee steps out of the car wearing a floor-length, brightly colored dress, gold earrings, and jingling bracelets. Mama, unsure at first, decides that she thinks the dress is beautiful. Maggie seems surprised by the style of Dee’s hair, which she wears in an Afro.
At last, Walker introduces the reader to Dee not only as Mama remembers her, but as she is in reality and at present. Dee arrives with her partner, and Mama’s lack of clarity about whether they are married or not speaks even further to the distance between church-going, traditional Mama and her daughter. Meanwhile, Maggie’s anxiety reaches its apex as she tries to flee into the house. Once Dee steps out of the car, Mama’s intense examination of her wardrobe suggests how distinct Dee’s style choices are. She describes Dee’s clothing as both literally and figuratively noisy: her dress is “loud,” and her bracelets “jingle.” In this way, Dee’s clothes reflect her own outspoken nature. Mama’s decision—and it seems like a decision, coming toward the end of her description of Dee’s outfit—that she likes the dress reflects Mama’s desire to reconcile with her daughter.
Next, Dee greets her family in Luganda, an African language, saying “Wa-su-zo Tean-o!” Hakim-a-barber follows suit, saying “Asalamakim” (an Arabic greeting). He tries to hug Maggie and, in doing so, startles her.
Dee and Hakim-a-barber seem to be taking part in a tradition of African-Americans returning to their African roots in an attempt to circumvent the history of white violence against black people. They greet Dee’s family in Luganda and Arabic. The greeting is silly and somewhat awkward, however, since neither Mama nor Maggie speak these languages.
After they say hello, Dee retrieves a camera from her car and takes pictures of Maggie and Mama with their house. She makes sure to photograph Mama and Maggie together with the house, not just the two of them. When a cow appears, Dee includes it in the photograph composition. She puts the camera back in the car when she is finished.
Dee’s photography, which might at first seem sentimental and sweet, becomes peculiar when, as Mama notices, she insists that the pictures include the house and, later, the cow. Dee seems to not be taking pictures of her family as they are as people, but rather as part of the quaint landscape of Dee’s youth. Dee attempts to turn her family into an art object (a well-composed photograph) rather than authentically appreciating how they are as living people.
When photography session is over, Mama addresses Dee by name. Dee, however, corrects Mama, and tells Mama to instead call her “Wangero,” an African name. When Mama asks what happened to “Dee,” Dee says, “She’s dead,” because she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress [her].” Mama reminds Dee that she is actually named after her aunt Dicie, who was named, in turn, after her older ancestors. Dee, however, doesn’t seem interested in the history of her name.
In this conflict, Walker showcases the difference between Mama and Dee’s worldviews. Dee states that her desire to go by “Wangero,” an African name, rather than her given name, is a result of her desire to escape the system of oppression that her personal history is connected to. Mama, on the other hand, sees Dee’s name as a link to her family history, and to people that Mama knew and loved. Dee is named after her black female ancestors, but, presumably, her Western name came at some point from European roots. As Mama explains the history of Dee’s name, Dee clearly is uninterested in changing her view of it. Despite Dee’s intelligence, she close-mindedly neglects to listen to her mother’s alternate viewpoint on the name’s heritage.
As Mama explains the name’s lineage, Dee and Hakim-a-Barber give each other looks over her mother and sister’s heads, communicating through eye contact. Ultimately, Mama agrees to call Dee “Wangero,” settling the issue.
As Mama explains, Dee and Hakim-a-barber communicate via eye contact. In this instance, eye contact again is a power Dee possesses and Mama does not. This time, however, Dee uses it specifically to leave Mama out. Ultimately, Mama, favoring reconciliation, ends the argument by conceding to call Dee “Wangero.”
Mama reflects that Dee and Hakim-a-Barber’s greeting of “Asalamakim” reminds her of the cattle farmers down the road, who say hello the same way. She remembers a time when their cattle were poisoned by “white folks,” and how she walked a mile and a half to see it.
Mama’s anecdote about her neighbors showcases the intense and violent racism of the society she and Maggie live in. Equally notable, though, is the way that Mama tells the story—the poisoning is situated in a clause modifying Mama’s claim that she walked a mile and a half to see it, not as the main clause of the sentence. Mama views the actual racism, then, as part of the conditions of the events in Mama’s life—something to be taken for granted—rather than the content of it.
The family eats dinner together— collard greens and pork. The fare disgusts Hakim-a-barber, but delights Dee, who eats the cornbread and potatoes with gusto.
Mama seems surprised by Dee’s newfound affinity for the family’s traditional dishes. Dee not only enjoys the food; she obsesses over it somewhat excessively. Dee’s attitude towards her family’s life is completely different than how Mama described her as a teenager—sullen, resentful, and uninterested.
Mama notices Dee’s newfound enthusiasm for the family’s possessions. Dee strokes the “rump prints” on the family’s worn benches. She closes her hand around Grandma Dee’s butter dish (the family has many ancestors named “Dee”) before spying the butter churn.
Dee’s changed mindset towards the objects of her upbringing, like her attitude toward the food she grew up with, seems to have completely changed from when she was an adolescent. She now covets them, admiring their antiquity and the family history that she believes they represent. However, Dee’s interest comes across as somewhat out-of-touch. She admires Grandma Dee’s butter dish, but not her own name, which comes from Grandma Dee and her Aunt Dicie..
Dee excitedly runs over to the butter churn and asks if she can have the churn top, which was whittled by Uncle Buddy. Dee asks for the dasher as well, which she believes Uncle Buddy also whittled. Maggie, however, knows better, and gently corrects Dee, saying it was Aunt Dee’s first husband, Stash, who made the object. Dee laughs off Maggie’s correction, saying that she has a “brain like an elephant.”
Despite the infrequency of Dee’s visits, and despite her tense relationship with her family, Dee shamelessly asks to take home the butter churn. She tries to assert her interest in the family history by connecting it to Uncle Buddy, but again the shallowness of Dee’s understanding of her family history becomes clear when Dee incorrectly assumes that Uncle Buddy whittled both the churn top and the dasher. Dee’s reaction to Maggie’s correction—laughter—implies that she does not actually care about the details of her family history, but only an abstract vision of it.
Dee then goes on to detail how she will use the churn top as a centerpiece and do “something artistic” with the dasher. As Dee wraps up the dasher to take away, Mama touches it and looks it over. She ponders the thumb and handprints worn into the dasher from so much use, and admires the color of the wood, which came from a tree that grew in Aunt Dee and Stash’s yard.
Walker contrasts Dee’s orientation towards her family’s heirlooms and Mama’s. Dee is interested in the representative and decorative value of the family’s possessions. She wishes to turn them into art objects, preserving them but killing any possibility of their use. Mama, on the other hand, pays attention to the ways the objects have been used—she thoroughly knows the objects’ history and admires them not for visual beauty, but as a way of interacting with and building on the past. To Mama, practical use is part of the family tradition.
After dinner, Dee investigates a trunk at the foot of Mama’s bed, and emerges with two quilts. Mama observes that they are quilts she made together with Grandma Dee and Aunt Dee, and remembers the patterns they used to make them—“Lone Star” and “Walk around the Mountain.” Mama also notes the source of the fabric—cobbled together from scraps of Grandma Dee’s dresses, pieces of a Grandfather’s shirts, and one piece from another ancestor’s Civil War uniform.
Dee continues to invasively look for objects to take home rather than catching up with her long-estranged family. As she emerges with the quilts, Mama immediately recognizes not just the quilts themselves, but also the way they were made and with which patterns, and where exactly the fabric came from. Mama’s intimate understanding of these objects stems from the fact that she lives each day in the lifestyle for which the quilts were made. She knows the quilts’ history because she lived it. Her familiarity with the quilts triggers a whole web of interlocking family stories and nuances of ancestors’ lives that Mama has access to due to her active engagement with that history.
Sweetly, Dee asks to take her grandmother’s quilts home with her in addition to the butter churn. Mama suggests she take some of the other, newer quilts, but Dee refuses, saying she does not want quilts stitched by machine. When Mama points out that this will make them last longer, Dee insists that the hand-stitching is what makes them valuable. When Mama reaches out to touch the quilts, Dee pulls them back, out of reach.
When Mama offers Dee the newer, machine-stitched quilts, Dee clearly does not think they are as valuable. Dee privileges the older quilts because they are representative of a more distant past rather than an immediate one. This recalls Dee’s adoption of an African name, from a culture her family hasn’t been a part of for generations, instead of keeping the name Dee, which has much more meaning in the recent past. For Dee, heritage must be fully removed from her current life in order to be appealing. As Dee pulls the quilts from Mama, she seems to have little respect for her mother as an actual person, or the fact that the quilts are Mama’s property.
Mama at last tells Dee that she cannot give her the quilts because she promised to give the quilts to Maggie for her marriage to John Thomas, a local man. Dee, affronted, argues that Maggie can’t appreciate the quilts, because she’s “backward enough” to put them “to everyday use.” Mama retorts that she should hope so— she hasn’t kept the quilts so long in order for them to go unused. Mama remembers, but keeps to herself, the fact that she offered Dee a family quilt before Dee went to college, but that Dee did not want it then, thinking it was too old-fashioned.
The difference between Dee’s visual, hollow appreciation of her family’s heirlooms and Mama’s interest in authentic engagement with the past through these objects comes to a head in this argument over the quilts. Dee lords her education over Mama and Maggie, suggesting their lifestyle is “hackward.” By extension, Dee suggests that the culture in which Maggie and Mama live, the culture she supposedly wishes to celebrate by hanging the quilts on her wall, is, itself, “backward.” Dee’s hypocrisy becomes especially evident here: she only admires objects that represent her family’s lifestyle once that way of life is dead. Moreover, Dee’s hypocrisy also shows in her complete change in her relationship to the quilts, which she never wanted before.
Unwillingly to back down, Dee argues that, by using them as blankets, Maggie would wear the quilts out in five years. Mama, however, shrugs Dee’s point off, saying that if Maggie does wear the quilts out, she knows how to sew, and so can always sew some more.
Dee is concerned with preserving the family heritage, implying that the heritage would (or should) otherwise disintegrate. For Dee, quilting is already a thing of the past. Mama, on the other hand, sees Maggie as a way of keeping up their culture. Since Maggie can sew new quilts, there’s no need to preserve the culture—it’s still alive and thriving.
Still, Dee insists that it is those particular quilts she thinks are important. Mama asks what Dee intends to do with them anyway, and Dee says she wants to hang them on her walls.
Once again, Dee wishes to use her family’s possessions as decorations and deadened symbols of her family’s history, despite the fact that she’s not actually very connected to that more immediate history. In Dee’s mind, the best way to revere her family history is to preserve and aestheticize it, rather than actually use it and live with it.
Meanwhile, Maggie comes and stands by the door. She tells Mama that Dee can have the quilts, sounding like “somebody used to never winning anything.” Maggie says that she can remember her grandmother just fine without the quilts.
Walker again portrays Maggie as a character who is so used to not getting her way that she immediately concedes the quilts to Dee. Maggie echoes Mama’s earlier behavior when Mama quickly agreed to call Dee “Wangero” just to keep the peace, and willingly gave up the butter churn.
Mama thinks hard, looking at Maggie, taking in her snuff-filled lip, her burn-scarred hands hidden in the folds of her too-big clothes, her sad resignation that she will not be able to keep the quilts, and her lack of anger at Dee. Mama is suddenly struck by a feeling she describes as similar to one she gets in church, when “the spirit of God touches [her].” Mama pulls Maggie into the room, snatches the quilts from Dee, and dumps them into Maggie’s lap, telling Dee to take a couple of the other, newer quilts.
But this time, Mama is not willing to appease Dee. When Mama gives Maggie the quilts instead of Dee, she breaks the unusual family dynamic, in which Mama and Maggie sacrifice so that Dee can have what she wants—in her own way, Mama is finally “looking someone in the eye” and standing up for herself in this moment. The family heirlooms will now be continually engaged with as a way to maintain a connection to, and build upon, the family’s heritage and the amorphous collection of memories and meaning that this heritage entails. Mama’s win in this fight might be viewed as Walker’s endorsement of Mama’s view of objects and heritage over Dee’s.
Dee, enraged, exits the house and walks towards her car. As Maggie and Mama follow her, Dee turns and tells them they don’t understand their “heritage.”
Dee’s assertion that her family does not understand its heritage is highly ironic— clearly it is Dee, with her utter removal from the family’s everyday traditions, who lacks understanding of her own heritage. Walker also draws attention to Dee’s lack of understanding despite her education.
Dee then kisses Maggie goodbye and tells her she “ought to try and make something” of herself, since it’s “a new day for us.” She puts on sunglasses, obscuring her eyes. Maggie smiles at Dee, or perhaps at her sunglasses. Mama notes that it is a “real smile,” not a nervous or fearful one.
Dee cannot leave without adding insult to injury. She clearly shows her contempt for the lifestyle behind the paraphernalia she covets, telling Maggie she “ought to try and make something” of herself, as if to imply she were not something already, once again using her educated status to degrade her family. Dee’s sunglasses at last obscure her dominating eye contact, and Maggie smiles genuinely at them, finally confident in returning her sister’s (albeit invisible) gaze.
Mama and Maggie watch Dee’s car pull away. Then the two of them sit in the front of the house and take snuff and until it’s time to go back into the house and go to bed.
The story ends with Mama and Maggie more or less where they started— together in the yard. It is a scene of domestic intimacy and comfort. With Dee gone, Mama and Maggie enjoy their home once again, free of judgment of their way of life and their traditions.