Everyday Use is the story of an African American family and its eldest daughter's conflict with her mother over their heritage as expressed through family heirlooms that will be passed down from the family's matriarch to her daughters. It dwells on themes of racial identity, African American heritage, and the ways in which families choose to honor or discard pieces of their familial identity. It also deals with the focus placed on objects signifying the past's connection to the present.
Although Dee has discarded her rural roots for an education, she returns to visit Mama (her mother) and surprises her by wearing traditional African clothing, changing her name, and having a Muslim husband. Dee is attempting to reclaim her heritage from Africa, but in the process, she is also rejecting her immediate African American background. The fact that she changes her name, from Dee to Wangero (an African name) disrespects her cultural heritage because "Dee" is a family name that can be traced back many generations. Dee asks to have a churn that her Uncle Bundy carved from a tree they used to have. However, she wants it for the wrong reason, saying that she will use it only for decoration. Also, she wants the quilts that Mama has, stating that she wants them because of the generations of clothing and effort put into making them. However, Mama resists giving the quilts to Dee and instead chooses to bestow them on her younger daughter, Maggie, who Mama knows will put the quilts to "everyday use" instead of simply displaying them as trophies (as Dee plans to do). Mama and Maggie focus on enjoying their life together with experiences and memories and celebrate their African American heritage.