“‘You just don’t understand,’ [Dee] said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.
‘What don’t I understand?’ [Mama] wanted to know.
‘Your heritage,’ [Dee] said.” (p. 59)
Everyday Use is a story about roots and heritage and this passage, which appears on the final page of the story, encapsulates the struggle of understanding them. In Everyday Use, we are introduced to two radically different characters with two radically different views of heritage. The character and narrator, Mama, is introduced as a strong woman from humble beginnings who while she is a smart woman, she lacks a formal education. As a result, she appears simpler than her daughter Dee, an equally strong but formally educated woman who has changed her name from “Dee” to “Wangero” as part of her conversion to Islam.
While the two have lead very different lives, their friction is properly played out in the passage above. Up until that point, Mama and Dee showed signs of a clash with regards to the household objects like the benches made by their father, or the butter churn topper and the dasher carved by their uncles Buddy and “Stash” respectively. Mama views these objects as practical tools given to her by family so she may benefit from their use. Dee, on the other hand, views these objects as mementos representative of her heritage. They are not tools, but staples of her family history. For this reason, Dee asks if she can have these objects, not for their practical purposes but so she may remember her roots.
Ultimately, Dee goes rummaging through Mama’s bedside trunk and pulls out a couple of quilts made of old clothes dating back to the Civil War knitted by her grandmother (also named Dee) and asks Mama if she can have them. When Mama asks what Dee will do with them, Dee responds by saying she plans to hang them up. To this, Mama responds by taking the quilts from Dee’s hands and giving them to Maggie, Dee’s timid little sister. Mama tells Dee that Maggie should have them because she actually uses them; she gets “everyday use” out of them unlike Dee who would simply have them as a sort of trophy. At this point, Dee exits the house and goes to leave with the man she came with. She tells Mama before she leaves that Mama does not understand her heritage; their heritage.
This then begs the question, what is heritage? Is it based on culture and the origins of a people, or is it based on the relationships between close family members? Is it about trying to reach back to an era that predates even your great-grandparents like Dee is trying to do? Or is it about making use of the lessons, tools, and skills imparted on you by your family like Mama and Maggie do by using the objects as they were meant to be used.