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“Everyday Use” tells the story of a rural, African American family from the perspective of a mother who has overcome racism, and obstacles, and endured labor-intensive hard work to provide better opportunities for her daughters. Despite Mama’s efforts to protect her children from the side of the world that has contributed to her rugged exterior, her youngest daughter, Maggie, suffered from burn wounds caused by a house fire in her youth, causing her self-esteem to plummet. On the contrary, her eldest daughter, Dee, was blessed with natural good looks, and quick wit, and was fortunate enough to receive an education as a result of Mama’s hard work. Maggie and her Mother’s similar and unfortunate disadvantages in society strengthen their bond, while simultaneously distancing themselves from Dee’s societal superiority resulting from her education and attractiveness. Mama only wanted what was best for her daughters, but her hard work to provide her children with greater opportunities has backfired and pushed Dee further away. Education has not only distanced Dee from her mother and sister, but it has also fundamentally changed the sense of community within her family because the more she is immersed in the lifestyle that comes with education, the more she alienates herself from her family.

Mama and Maggie’s close relationship plays a crucial role in the overall community of their family because it is built upon shared disadvantages in society, a commonality that sets Dee apart. At the beginning of the story, Mama describes herself as a “large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands”. Her tone when describing herself and her work implicates that she is proud of her rouged nature, but her “manly” appearance distances her lifestyle further away from the typical role of a woman. As a child, she was denied an education, her school was closed, and no one attempted to try to reopen it. Racism and forces beyond her control led Mama to the only option of sacrificing her role as a woman to work and provide for her family. Similarly, Maggie’s childhood has also been littered with unfortunate setbacks. Mama recalls that: “She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on the ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground”. The traumatic fire early in Maggie’s life has certainly affected her current behavior, this is evident when Mama describes her: “She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passes her by”. While Maggie’s character traits and lack of education are not advantageous in their society, her scarred, ugly appearance hides her affectionate, kind, and generous nature. Mama’s critical, yet sympathetic tone and appreciation for her childlike qualities describing Maggie is necessary for understanding the dynamic of their relationship: “Maggie attempts to dash the house, in her shuffling way, but I stay her with my hand.‘Come back here,’ I say. And she stops and tries to dig a well in the sand with her toe”. Mama deeply understands the adverse circumstances that hinder Maggie’s perceived social class in society and can sympathize with her, because she is also a victim of them. In this case, Mama and Maggie’s deviation from the educated middle class brings them closer together.

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While Mama and Maggie’s hardships strengthen their bond, Dee, with her knowledge and prestige, is a threat to the simple community Maggie and Mama have cultivated and ultimately separates Dee from her true self and family. A key element in understanding why Dee’s success ultimately alienates her from her mother and sister is revealed in Mama’s dream of a picturesque, movie-star version of herself and Dee: “But that is a mistake. I know even before I wake up. Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine me looking a strange white man in the eye? It seems to me I have talked to them always with one foot raised in flight, with my head fumed in whichever way is farthest from them. Dee, though. She would always look anyone in the eye. Hesitation was no part of her nature”. Mama’s dream represents the exact opposite of her reality, but Dee’s life closely resembles this reality. Her tone in describing the dream suggests that she rejects this frivolous lifestyle that has oppressed her, but in turn, she is also rejecting the lifestyle of Dee. Furthermore, there is a stark distinction between her tone when describing Dee and when describing Maggie. She explains: “Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she’d made from an old suit somebody gave me. She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often I fought off the temptation to shake her. At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was”. Mama often emphasizes Dee’s overly-confident, almost entitled behaviors aggressively in her diction, rather than in a sympathetic way as she does with Maggie. She also mocks her choice of friends: “Furtive boys in pink shirts hanging about on washday after school. Nervous girls who never laughed. Impressed with her they worshiped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in Iye”. Her tone suggests that she believes people of the same class as Dee, resulting from education, aren’t as genuine. Even as a child, Dee would read to her mother and sister “without pity,” “forcing” strange ideas on them. Mama sees Dee’s (and the educated) flaunting of their education as a means to exert her intellectual and class superiority over her family, causing detrimental tension in their family dynamic. When Dee returns home with a new name and new ideals, she represents the new world, a world that has left Maggie and Mama behind. The Civil Rights and Black Pride movements of the 1960s are most likely occurring during the setting of the short story. Dee has immersed herself so deeply in these movements that she has forgotten her family heritage and replaced it with one that education has instilled in her, leading her to alienate herself from her roots. The new name, new lifestyle, and choice of clothes she wears to make a statement, are meaningless when it comes to her family.

Some say “ignorance is bliss”, but Walker has changed the meaning of this common phrase through the characters in her story. While education is important and often leads to success, it can also change us as people and cause us to lose sight of what matters. Dee has been estranged from her family in favor of education, the opposite of ignorance that both Mama and Maggie share. Walker asks us to remember where the origination of our core values comes from. While education or hard work can alter these values to a degree, only family can provide true bliss.  

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