30 pages 1 hour read

Ray Bradbury

The Other Foot

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1951

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Other Foot”

“The Other Foot” by American author Ray Bradbury is a short story that uses the conventions of science fiction and the structure of a modern parable to tackle themes of revenge, empathy, racism, individual and group identity, and forgiveness. The story was first published in New-Story Magazine: The Monthly Magazine for the Short Story and republished as part of Bradbury’s short-story collection, The Illustrated Man (1951). It follows the words and actions of a community of Black humans living on Mars as they prepare to confront the first white man to visit Mars in 20 years, after a nuclear war has rendered Earth largely uninhabitable.

Attempts to end segregation or win equal rights for Black Americans were often met with accusations that, if Black Americans had the opportunity, they would surely seek revenge for their centuries of mistreatment. In “The Other Foot”, Bradbury presents a Black society suddenly confronted with the arrival of a lone white man and asks the question: how will they respond when the shoe is on the other foot?

This study guide refers to the version of the text that is freely available on Lecturia.org.

Content Warning: “The Other Foot” contains extensive discussion of racial violence, including lynching, as well as references to a global nuclear war and mass death.

“The Other Foot” employs a third-person limited point of view. The main character is referred to with third-person pronouns, and the reader is privy to her thoughts and emotions. The narration primarily follows Hattie Johnson, a stay-at-home mother who left Earth in her childhood to emigrate to Mars. The story establishes that her early life in Greenwater, Alabama, was hard, particularly because of the racist violence that ultimately killed both her parents. Hattie’s husband, Willie Johnson, left Earth at 16 to escape the same violence; his mother and father were shot and hanged from a tree as part of a lynching.

Hattie realizes that something unusual is happening when her three sons shout for her outside her home. She covers the soup she is cooking and goes outside to find out what’s going on. Her children tell her a rumor they have heard: The first rocket from Earth in 20 years is on its way, with a white man on board. The children have grown up in an entirely Black community and have no idea what white people are like. They ask Hattie to repeat her description of them from when she was a little girl in 1965. Hattie’s description of white people focuses entirely on skin color, not social behavior. She seems concerned about the rocket’s arrival and tells her boys to go inside rather than watch the rocket land, much to their disappointment. She mentions that there have been no visitors from Earth to Mars in 20 years due to an “atom war” that destroyed all of Earth’s rockets.

With her children safely indoors, Hattie goes to the home of her neighbors, the Browns. She finds the family piling into their car to see the white man’s arrival. When Hattie asks whether they’re planning to lynch the white man, Mr. Brown laughs at her and says they plan to “shake his hand” (Paragraph 42), with which everyone else agrees.

Just then, a second car pulls up containing Hattie’s furious husband, Willie. He orders Hattie to get into the car with him and yells at Brown to bring his guns to the landing site. Brown does not object.

On the drive back to the Johnson home, Hattie tries to talk Willie down from his rage, but Willie will not be moved. He complains that the people of Earth won’t leave Mars alone, and he reminds Hattie of the violence and hatred they suffered back in Greenwater. He fantasizes out loud about subjecting white people to the same treatment—lynching them, passing laws to restrict their freedoms, forcing them to ride in the back of streetcars and sit in the balconies of theaters. At the house, Willie gathers up four guns, along with rope, paint, and a stencil. He forces the boys, who are playing outside and chanting about the white man, to go inside and stay there. He ties the rope into a hangman’s noose.

Back in the car, Willie and Hattie speed toward the airport where the rocket is set to land. Along the way, Hattie sees people holding up guns and rope, many of them shouting and waving to Willie. Hattie realizes Willie has stirred people up with the idea of lynching the white man. She again tries to placate him, but he continues to rage.

At the airport, Willie passes out weapons to a crowd of onlookers. A trolley arrives, and once the passengers get out, Willie paints the last two rows of seats and stencils the words “FOR WHITES: REAR SECTION.” The conductor objects at first, then smiles when he sees what Willie has done. More streetcars arrive, and Willie sends members of the crowd to paint them, too. He proclaims new laws: a ban on intermarriage and a pitifully low minimum wage of 10 cents an hour. (The US minimum wage in 1950 was 75 cents an hour.)

The mayor approaches, accusing Willie of behaving no better than the white men he has raged about all his life. Willie replies: “This is the other shoe, Mayor, and the other foot” (Paragraph 114). He threatens to hold an election for a new mayor. While the crowd isn’t entirely on Willie’s side—Bradbury notes that some seem confused and others afraid—signs of segregation are already appearing in the town, and Willie’s opinions are carrying the day.

The rocket lands, and an old white man steps out of it and begins to speak. He describes the destruction of Earth in what he calls the “Third One”—by implication, a third world war. He lists major cities that have been destroyed, and then lists smaller cities and towns that were eradicated in a second wave. People in the crowd recognize the names of places where they once lived: Natchez, Mississippi; Columbus, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Atlanta, Georgia; and Greenwater, Alabama. Willie reacts with open-mouthed shock as the old man continues to list places that have been devastated: cities, towns, cotton fields, factories, all the pieces of Earth life that people in the crowd will remember. He asks the people of Mars for their help. He says that the survivors of Earth, the remnants of humanity from all over the planet, need a new place to live now that their home is radioactive. He acknowledges how poorly the Black residents of Mars were treated on their homeworld. He says he’ll leave if the Martians ask him to but offers to make the refugees from Earth a servant class, just as Black Americans were in Greenwater.

Silence follows. As Willie holds the rope, Hattie has an idea. She asks the white man what happened to the hill in Greenwater where Willie’s father was lynched. He replies that it was destroyed, along with the tree from which the body hung. Hattie asks about more locations, all of them central to Willie’s trauma; the white man replies that all of those places are now gone and all of the people involved in the lynching of Willie’s father are dead.

The story’s perspective briefly shifts to Willie as he remembers the people and places of Greenwater, all of them now blown up and burned away. He realizes that there is nothing left for him to hate, except innocent people who might now be subjected to the same treatment he received. He drops the rope and tells the white man “you don’t have to do that” (Paragraph 205).

The people in the crowd return to the town and remove the signs of segregation. As Willie and Hattie drive home, Willie reflects that there is now a chance to start over with everyone on the same social level. When they reach their house, the boys ask their parents if they’ve seen the white man, and Willie replies: “Seems like for the first time today I really seen the white man—I really seen him clear” (Paragraph 213).