Probably Alice Walker’s most frequently anthologized story, “Everyday Use” first appeared in Walker’s collection In Love and Trouble: Stories by Black Women. Walker explores in this story a divisive issue for African Americans, one that has concerned a number of writers, Lorraine Hansberry, for instance, in her play Raisin in the Sun (1959). The issue is generational as well as cultural: In leaving home and embracing their African heritage, must adults turn their backs on their African-American background and their more traditional family members? The issue, while specifically African-American, can also be viewed as a universal one in terms of modern youth who fail to understand the values of their ancestry and of their immediate family. Walker also raises the question of naming, a complicated one for African Americans, whose ancestors were named by slaveholders.
The first-person narrator of the story is Mrs. Johnson, mother of two daughters, Maggie and Dicie, nicknamed Dee. Addressing the readers as “you,” she draws us directly into the story while she and Maggie await a visit from Dee. With deft strokes, Walker has Mrs. Johnson reveal essential information about herself and her daughters. She realistically describes herself as a big-boned, slow-tongued woman with no education and a talent for hard work and outdoor chores. When their house burned down some 12 years previous, Maggie was severely burned. Comparing Maggie to a wounded animal, her mother explains that she thinks of herself as unattractive and slow-witted, yet she is good-natured too, and preparing to marry John Thomas, an honest local man. Dee, on the other hand, attractive, educated, and self-confident, has left her home (of which she was ashamed) to forge a new and successful life.
When she appears, garbed in African attire, along with her long-haired friend, Asalamalakim, Dee informs her family that her new name is Wangero Leewanika Kemanio. When she explains that she can no longer bear to use the name given to her by the whites who oppressed her, her mother tries to explain that she was named for her aunt, and that the name Dicie harkens back to pre–CIVIL WAR days. Dee’s failure to honor her own family history continues in her gentrified appropriation of her mother’s butter dish and churn, both of which have a history, but both of which Dee views as quaint artifacts that she can display in her home. When Dee asks for her grandmother’s quilts, however, Mrs. Johnson speaks up: Although Maggie is willing to let Dee have them because, with her goodness and fine memory, she needs no quilts to help her remember Grandma Dee, her mother announces firmly that she intends them as a wedding gift for Maggie. Mrs. Johnson approvingly tells Dee that Maggie will put them to “everyday use” rather than hanging them on a wall.
Dee leaves in a huff, telling Maggie she ought to make something of herself. With her departure, peace returns to the house, and Mrs. Johnson and Maggie sit comfortably together, enjoying each other’s company. Although readers can sympathize with Dee’s desire to improve her own situation and to feel pride in her African heritage, Walker also makes clear that in rejecting the African-American part of that heritage, she loses a great deal. Her mother and sister, despite the lack of the success that Dee enjoys, understand the significance of family. One hopes that the next child will not feel the need to choose one side or the other but will confidently embrace both.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” In Major Writers of Short Fiction: Stories and Commentary, edited by Ann Charters. Boston: St. Martin’s, 1993, 1,282–1,299.