L C David is an English teacher at a state university. She enjoys writing about her experiences.
Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" examines the divide between the rural, Black south in the '60s and '70s and the new progressive movement among the younger generation.
When Dee goes to college, she can barely wait to shake the dust off her feet from her poor Georgia community.
But when she comes back, irrevocably changed, Mama and Dee's sister, Maggie, don't know how to understand or communicate with her.
One of the interesting techniques that Alice Walker uses to tell her story is making it a first-person narrative told through Mama, an uneducated, rural-Georgia Black woman who is living in the past and is unable to understand the present.
She admits to the reader from an early point that she never understood Dee and that she and her older daughter clashed from the time that she was a young girl.
Mama doesn't understand Dee and, further, she was hurt by Dee and by Dee's urgency to escape Georgia, escape the south, and escape her family.
So already we are being told this story by a biased narrator, one who has her own prejudices and who possibly lacks the capacity to fully understand who Dee is or who she has become.
When Dee comes back from school with a new Muslim boyfriend and a name change and suddenly claims that she understands her past and wants to preserve it, Mama is understandably confused, hurt, and angry.
She lashes out at Dee in the only way she can: by painting a negative picture of her to the reader and by denying her the quilt that she so desperately wants.
The quilt becomes the central conflict in the story.
Dee is right that the quilt represents so much about her family's past and even more about the history of Black people in the south.
It has had generations of family work on it and even contains a patch from a very old Civil War uniform.
The conflict arises when the question of whether this unique quilt should go to Maggie, who plans to use it when she gets married soon, or to Dee, who says she wants to hang it up and preserve it, is asked.
From the title of the story, the reader can probably already guess what Mama thinks and what the fate of the quilt would be.
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But was it the right choice?
Maggie is easily the most pathetic character in the story.
Whether she is clueless because of a mental disability or because of her lack of exposure to education and the outside world, she seems to be dominated by Dee.
But remember that the reader is only getting this information through Mama. There is some question about whether Mama just sees what she wants to see.
Mama even blames Dee for the accident that left Maggie disabled and walking with a limp.
Maggie does not want to get in the way of her sister, and when Dee wants the quilt, Maggie tells Mama just to let her have it.
But Mama seems determined to put her foot down and finally stand up to Dee, so she insists that Maggie take the quilt despite Dee's protests that the quilt will then just be for "everyday use."
But Dee is not unsympathetic to her sister. As she leaves, she encourages Maggie to get away and tells her that it is a whole new world out there—a world that Dee has discovered through education and exposure.
Dee gets a bad rap from the beginning.
Since the reader is set up to dislike her and be suspicious of her because of Mama, some careful reading and analysis reveal what is good about Dee.
While Dee initially shook the dust off her feet and refused all the pieces of home, her education—something Black people and women in general couldn't previously get—has allowed her to understand the importance of her southern heritage and its place in Black history.
She does sweep in with all these changes and is demanding and overwhelms Mama. We know from Mama that she has always had a commanding presence.
Dee is not perfect, but is she wrong?
One of Mama's criticisms of Dee is how much she has changed.
But has she really changed and of the changes she made, are they completely invalid?
Mama questions Dee's name change and her new, African-inspired dress.
Dee tries to explain why she made these choices, but Mama sees it as an affront to their personal history and not what it truly is—Dee's understanding of the deeper history of Black people in the south.
Dee is not wrong that her name, which came from her grandmother, actually has its roots in slavery. At some point, her family's roots were African, and when they were forcibly brought into slavery in the United States, one of the ways they were stripped of their identity was through the owner changing their names.
Dee's education has exposed these truths to her, and she chooses this way to express her anger over what was done to her people, the removal of their past. She also attempts to re-establish that connection by expressing herself through dress and name change.
What Mama doesn't understand is that Dee's changes aren't a rejection of Mama or her family. The opposite is actually true. These changes show that Dee is trying to establish a deeper understanding and connection with her history--something Mama is either unable or unwilling to do.
Dee's execution of these changes may be imperfect, but the reasons behind them are not completely invalid.
Quilts as Art
The central argument Dee makes is that the quilt in question is art and history and should not be used for everyday use. Mama believes that quilts are made to be used.
So who is right?
Well, both of them.
While the quilt in question was created out of practicality through several generations and was intended for use as a bed cover, its heritage and history may have elevated it to a higher, more important place.
The idea of practical art is deeply rooted in African customs. Beautiful baskets, mats and blankets were made to be pleasing to the eye as well as be useful.
Art for art's sake is a European idea.
But the depth of importance of this particular quilt can't be denied, and the story it tells of the generations of Black women who worked on it elevates it to the status of art.
And possibly Dee is right. It is not only art; it is art that needs to be preserved.
Gee's Bend Quilts
One example of how the useful became art can be found in the quilts of Gee's Bend Alabama.
A very poor section of Alabama, Gee's Bend has become famous for the unique quilts that the women, traceable descendants of slaves from the adjacent plantation, have been making for years.
The quilts are unique works of art, made from scraps but telling a story through patterns and designs that can be traced back to their African roots from a very long time ago.
The women originally didn't know why they made their quilts the way they did, they just knew that these methods and geometric patterns had been passed down for generations. It's just the way that they did things.
Although there was some exploitation when the quilts were first discovered (buying them for cheap and selling them for much more) eventually the women were told of the value of their unique quilts.
Since then, many of the quilts have traveled all around the world, being hailed as art and history. Quilts have sold for thousands of dollars and this once forgotten and impoverished community has found a new place in history and has now contributed to that history through art.
So these quilts, once created for practical use, have come to be so much more: a connection to the past and an artistic expression of these people and their struggles.
Quilting as a Part of Heritage – Gee's Bend
So what does all this prove?
Was Mama right to give the quilt to Maggie?
Are we set up to completely dislike Dee, never giving her a chance to explain herself or her actions?
Mama seems intent on punishing Dee and not forgiving her.
Dee was young when she left her home and refused the quilt. Her education helped her to grow up and understand her roots and her family's place in history.
But it seems that Mama is not quite ready to forgive her and so the quilt goes to Maggie and will likely be torn, stained and well-used. But with it goes an irreplaceable piece of history.
How many of us have something special from a grandparent, great-grandparent or beyond? It is likely that if you do have something like that, it is kept in a place of honor: cherished and preserved because you understand your own family's past and the importance of that connection in tangible objects.
The quilt is no different.
But Dee leaves, not completely angry, though understandably disappointed.
She tells her sister that there is a new world out there for them as a people and encourages Maggie to come discover it.
Education changed Dee's life and it could change Maggie's too.
- Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." Backpack Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Ed. Kennedy, X.J. and Gioia, Dana. Boston: Longman, 2010. 369-376. Print
Grace on May 17, 2019:
Your reading of 'Mama' and her perceptions is nearly as biased as you think her character is. XD. It's hilarious.