Alice Walker is well-known for writing about African American culture. Her short story Everyday Use is set in the early 1970s when many struggled to redefine and seized control of their social, cultural, and political identity in American society. Weary of the tragic history of slavery, many looked to their African roots in an effort to reconnect with their past. Like most of Alice Walker works, "Everyday Use" is a story about conflict between characters. The story tells of the mother’s rejection of her older superficial values in favor of the practical values of her younger daughter. By utilizing first person point of view in Everyday Use, Walker illustrates that true heritage embracement cannot be superficial. It is obvious Walker believes that the best way to celebrate one’s true heritage is by incorporating it into our everyday lives.
Although Walker’s distinct use of first person narration, limits the presentation of the story to one character’s perception, Mama, the protagonist, reveals much about the importance of heritage through varying character relationships. Initially, Mama compares her two dissimilar daughters in a way that glorifies Dee and pities Maggie. However, throughout the story, readers get a sense that Mama has more in common with Maggie rather than Dee. Both characters have a strong tie to their family’s heritage and both are quite comfortable with living in the very house that has been passed down from previous generations. Mama tells her audience that she and Maggie found themselves living similar lives to her grandparents while Dee pursued a family supported education removed from their culture. Using items and skills handed down from previous generations, Mama reminds readers her and Maggie truly appreciate the depth of their culture through utilization. Dee, on the other hand, is presented as the daughter who is flamboyant and loud. Her perception of heritage is entirely opposite to that of Mama and Maggie’s. As far as Dee is concerned, heritage is something of the past—something useless. She could care less about using old items and skills passed from previous generations and putting them to everyday use.
Dee’s perception of heritage suggests that true understanding and appreciation of heritage can only be achieved by savoring and displaying worn keepsakes rather than using them. Readers see this when Dee tells her mother that she will merely “hang [the used quilts]” on her wall when Mama questions Dee’s intentions with the quilts (175). In this moment, Mama reflects to Dee’s previous refusal of the quilts: “I didn’t want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then, she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style. ‘“But they’re priceless!”’ she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. ‘“Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags. Less than that!”’ (175). Frustrated with Dee’s ignorance, Mama snatched the quilts from Dee’s hand and presents them to Maggie: I did something I never done before: hugged Maggie to me then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero’s hands and dumped them into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open. “Take one or two of the others”, I said to Dee (175).
Mama’s self-enlightenment in first person point of view provides valuable expression of emotion that illustrates Mama’s pride in her culture. In response to Dee’s absurd demands for the authentic quilts, readers witness that Mama is no longer in awe of Dee, but is in awe with her own assets. Walker creates such a subtle intimacy between the narrator and the reader by exploring Mama’s developing perception of her daughter. Because these characters have different views about heritage, the conflict between Mama and Dee arises from Dee’s ill interpretation of culture and ultimately her disregard for heritage.