Everyday Use, a short story about the trials and tribulations of a small African American family located in the South, is an examination of black women's need to keep their powerful heritage. It speaks on multiple levels, voicing the necessity and strength of being true to one's roots and past; that heritage is not just something to talk about but to live and enjoy in order for someone to fully understand themselves. A sociological landmine, it was written to awaken the concepts of feminism as well as the civil rights movement, while being able to focus on just three women and their relationship to one another. Everyday Use give its black female characters an identity of their own, each in their own right, and observes the internal conflicts of two sisters who have made two very different life choices, all the while scrutinizing the underlying sibling rivalry between them.
Dee is the prodigal daughter; she left home to taste the world only to be given a new appreciation of her backwoods home. She is the favored daughter, possibly because her mother was always trying to get into her favor. And she is the daughter who received all the genetic blessings: fair skin, soft hair, and a full body which gives her confidence and dominance over others, particularly her family. Her confidence radiates in the fact that she can look anyone in the eye, including "strange white men" who terrify both her mother and her sister Maggie.
That same stare was the only form of emotion given when their house burned down, a tragedy that may have been perpetrated by Dee in the first place. Her hatred for that house and their lifestyle was what gave Dee a film over her eyelids, a picture of grey and filth, and eventually sent her away. She desperately wanted a life more suitable for a woman of her class, a class that she felt was better than even her own family. And as time goes by, she returns to the house that she criticized for years, never completely running her back on her family, but only for a visit and never with company, for fear of the tint it would bring to her name. Her last visit however finds her as a completely different person, with a man and a mission. Before even truly greeting her mother and sister, Dee takes photo after photo, artfully framing every shot with both her mother and the house that she loathes, but never allowing herself to be in the picture.
This was Dee's way of preserving life as it was, without having to exemplify it, without having her own world changing. But we see that she has changed from the original girl she was, now a woman, involved in the Back-to-Africa movement she calls herself Wang ero and speaks in Arabic. And while she claims to now appreciate the home she came from, she does not make any physical contact with her family except to give her mother a kiss on the forehead, treating her more like a landmark than a mother. She seems to be torn between what she felt for so many years and what she has been taught to feel by her movement brothers and sisters. Her perplexity, still, does not keep her from claiming what she feels is owed to her, and what would suit to be in her home instead. Picking up a few items, reveling in their authenticity, she envisions how these everyday objects will work as centerpieces and art in her house; they are a way for her to pick up the broken loathsome pieces of her past and build them into a well-respected future.
In truth, she does not want to be a part of that world, but wants people to view her as a part of it. She wants to be seen as a revolutionist, and even shares some of the feelings of those true followers of the movement. Yet, Dee's aggressiveness in taking what she wants and silencing her family turns out to be more oppressive than that which she believes she is fighting, especially towards her sister Maggie. Maggie's equal would be the faithful and responsible son from the parable of The Prodigal Son. She is the daughter who has stood by their mother throughout the years and embraced the life she was taught by that same mother, by her aunts, and by her grandmother. Maggie is a simple woman, with simple goals of marrying a simple man from the same simple town.
A victim of burns scarred all over her body from the fire of the first house, she has low confidence and self esteem. She, like her mother, probably dreams of a more glamorous life, suitable to her sister's liking, but understands she must work with the hand she has been dealt. Maggie doesn't speak to a great extent and would much rather stand behind someone than stand up to anyone. She has a fire in her, a passion, but doesn't find it coming out for the rest of the world to see, because she questions herself and her knowledge and authority. Yet Maggie has more knowledge than thought, she has the knowledge of those who came before her and the intelligence to use it. She knows what it means to be a wife, what it means to be a daughter, and she has been taught those homemaking skills that will allow her to succeed in her next home.
But this knowledge is not appreciated by her sister or even mother, at least not yet. We see the rivalry between Maggie and Dee within the first few pages of the story. Maggie and her mother are waiting for Dee, and while Maggie thinks of Dee in disgust and anger she also knows that as she waits, she is not just waiting for Dee but for redemption. Dee, however, refuses to give it to her as she hardly acknowledges her sister's presence, and does not give her any physical contact whatsoever, she is still treated as an embarrassment.
The climactic point of the visit is Dee's offensive notion of rummaging through her mother's trunk and taking quilts pieced by her aunt made from her grandmother's clothing. Maggie, already annoyed with her sister for taking pieces of their home in order to impress her friends, is astounded by this request as heard by the dishes breaking. This is because is trying to find her past Dee is slowly displacing Maggie. And while their mother has always turned her back on Maggie for Dee, this is the first time she has an epiphany and stands up for her forlorn daughter, stating that they are her only wedding gifts. With this we see that Maggie and Mama value those quilts more than Dee knows as they are precious enough to be considered an important wedding present. Indignant, Dee calls her sister backwards, claiming her not to be knowledgeable enough to appreciate the quilts, however Maggie appreciates the quilts more than her sister, as it is she who knows how to make them and make more if ever necessary.
And it is important to think about why these two sisters want the quilts, for Dee it is a piece of respect she feels she will receive by her friends, however Maggie has a deeper sentiment as she sees it as a symbol for the close relationship between her and her grandmother. The true magnitude in this rivalry though is that for many years, while trying to get Dee's favor, their mother has always sided with her, always put Maggie on the back burner, not realizing she was actually what held her together. Finally, she appreciates Maggie for the exceptional woman she is as she stands up for her right to the quilts. Neither girl believes the other truly understands what the quilt represents, each of them have a different definition of worth and they will most likely never understand each other's view or just each other. Dee especially believes that these quilts are a representation of what has been discarded as trash just as her culture has, however what she doesn't see is she was the first to disregard them just as she did her family. Everyday Use ends with Dee leaving, not with the quilts, thus making room for the new bond between Mama and Maggie.
Dee may believe that she has won in some way because she is the educated sister who appreciates her heritage, but the reader sees it is in fact Maggie who has become victorious by having her way of life validated by Mama's support and Dee's envy. Maggie's system of values is redeemed by creating a new relationship, with herself, in which she is no longer silenced and can truly appreciate the beauty of her home even in its everyday use. While there is little growth seen from the experience on Dee's side, we know that Maggie is forever changed, giving her more power than she ever had. There is still and will always be a struggle between her and her sister, but Maggie now knows she does not need redemption from Dee, nor anyone else, because it is she who carries the importance of the past into the future.