33 pages 1 hour read

Alice Walker

Everyday Use

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1973

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Summary: “Everyday Use”

“Everyday Use” is a short story by Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker. First published in Walker’s 1973 story collection In Love and Trouble, the story centers on a figure marginal to American literature at the time: a working-class black woman in the American South. The story’s interest in the way gender, race, and class intersect is characteristic of Walker’s work; in fact, it was Alice Walker who, later in her career, would coin the term “womanism” to describe a uniquely African-American form of feminism.

The protagonist and narrator of “Everyday Use” is a middle-aged woman named Mrs. Johnson. As the story opens, she is waiting outside her home for her semi-estranged daughter, Dee, to arrive for dinner. Dee was ambitious and assertive from a young age and is the only member of the family to have completed high school and college, thanks in large part to the financial sacrifices of her family and church. Mrs. Johnson, meanwhile, continues to live in a modest three-room home with her other daughter, Maggie, who is shy and painfully self-conscious about the scars she sustained when the family’s previous house burned down.

Maggie joins her mother in the yard shortly before Dee arrives, accompanied by her boyfriend (or possibly husband). Her style of dress has changed dramatically, and she informs her mother that she has changed her name to “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo” because she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress [her]” (Paragraph 27). Mrs. Johnson reminds Dee she was named after her aunt, and she struggles to pronounce the name of Dee’s boyfriend, who finally asks to be called “Hakim-a-barber.”

The four sit down to a dinner of collard greens and pork, which Hakim-a-barber declines. Meanwhile, Dee gushes over the family’s handmade furniture, asking for the butter churn to use as furnishings for her own home. She then retrieves two quilts from her mother’s bedroom and asks for them as well. Mrs. Johnson tries to dissuade her daughter: the quilts are made from scraps of clothing worn by Mrs. Johnson’s ancestors, and she had planned to give them to Maggie when she marries. This horrifies Dee, who wants to use the quilts as wall hangings: “But they’re priceless! [...] Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they’d be in rags. Less than that!” (Paragraph 68). Mrs. Johnson is on the point of giving in when Maggie, looking miserable and defeated, says that Dee can have the quilts. At that, the narrator takes the quilts back from Dee, who leaves in a temper, telling her mother she doesn’t understand her “heritage” (Paragraph 81). The narrator then watches as Dee and Hakim-a-barber drive away, noting happily that Maggie is smiling. 

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