Shocking news sweeps across the town, causing “the dark people” stare at the sky in anticipation. The news reaches towns thousands of miles away, and everyone “lift[s] their dark hands over their upturned white eyes” to block the harsh sunlight as they scan the skies.
The story begins with an element of confusion, as it’s unclear who “the dark people are” and what they’re looking for in the sky. The repetition of the word “dark, “however, foreshadows the important role race will play in the story.
Hattie Johnson’s children have heard the news as well. Hattie’s “three little Negro boys” jump up and down in the yard in anticipation, worried that their mother will “miss it.” Hattie asks her boys where they caught wind of this rumor, and they answer that they heard about it at the Jones’s house. Excitedly, one of the boys tells his mother, “They say a rocket’s coming, first one in twenty years, with a white man in it!” The other boy asks what a white man is, claiming he has never seen one before. Hattie tells her son that he will find out.
This moment clarifies that this particular community is comprised of black people who have been isolated from white people for a long time; Hattie’s children have never even seen a white person. The detail about the rocket is also the first suggestion that Hattie’s community possibly lives on a different planet. Note that Bradbury’s use of the word “Negro” was generally accepted at the time he was writing, though such language would be seen as offensive today.
The children beg Hattie to tell them stories about white men. Frowning, Hattie says that “it’s been a long time. I was a little girl, you see. That was back in 1965.” Unsatisfied with this answer, the boys continue to beg Hattie to tell them about white men.
It becomes clearer that this world is comprised of black people, but that its settlers are young enough to have once lived among mixed races. Because “The Other Foot” was published in 1951, Bradbury was imagining a not-so-distant future;
Hattie looks up at the “blue clear Martian sky” painted with “thin white Martian clouds.” On the horizon, the “Martian hills” look like they’re baking in the harsh sun. After a long pause, she tells her boys that white people have white hands. Her boys are incredulous. When she tells them that white people also have white arms and white faces, her boys holler in disbelief. The smallest boy throws dust on his face and asks, “White like this, Mom?” Solemnly, Hattie tells him that white people’s faces are even whiter.
Here, the story clarifies that Hattie and her community live on Mars. Hattie’s young boys have no concept of racial tension and appear utterly aware of the long, grim history of racism on Earth. Instead, they show a childlike curiosity and wonder at the notion of having skin so different from their own. This hints at the way that racism is a learned behavior, as the boys don’t intrinsically believe that the white man is inferior or superior to them because of his skin color—rather, he is simply different.
Hattie stares at the sky with worry. She tells the boys to go inside, but they object, claiming that they simply have to watch what is going on. The boys ask if anything will “happen,” and Hattie is unsure but says that she feels like something might. The boys say they just want to see the spaceship and see the white man. They ask again what the white man is like, and Hattie answers, “I don’t know, I just don’t know.”
Hattie is clearly concerned about the white man’s arrival but doesn’t voice her worries to her boys, highlighting both her protective nature and her sons’ youthful innocence. Hattie’s uncertainty about how the day will unfold suggests that she fears the Martians will react violently to the white man’s arrival, possibly exacting revenge for centuries of bitter abuse and prejudice on Earth.
Hattie tells her boys that white people live on Earth, which is where “we all come from.” Twenty years ago, she explains, people like them walked away from Earth and settled on Mars. As such, now they are “Martians instead of Earth people.” During those twenty years, no white men have come to Mars.
Hattie oversimplifies the interplanetary migration from Earth to Mars for her children, telling her boys that all black people “just up and walked away and came to mars”—as if doing so were as easy as moving to another town. Hattie also glosses over the Martians’ reason for leaving Earth: racism. These details make clear that Hattie is attempting to shield her children from the brutality of the racism that their mother escaped.
Excitedly, the boys ask why the white men didn’t come up to Mars, too. Hattie answers that right after “we” got to Mars, the people on Earth engaged in a huge atomic war and forgot about those who had already left. After several years of a terrible atomic war, the people on Earth were left without any rockets. It took them until the present moment to be able to build one. Looking at her children “numbly,” Hattie tells the boys to stay at the house. Reluctantly they agree, and Hattie hurries down the road.
Hattie is hesitant to talk to her boys about race but seems to have no issue talking to them about atomic war and death, suggesting that she’s not trying to protect them from all pain but rather from the specific evil of racism. The detail about the shortage of rockets on Earth further reveals the extent of the war and destruction it caused.
Approaching the Browns’ house, Hattie sees the family piled into the car. The Brown children greet Hattie and eagerly tell her that they’re going to see the white man. Mr. Brown adds that his children “never saw one, and I almost forgot.” Cautiously, Hattie asks Mr. Brown what he’s “going to do” with the white man. The Browns assure her that they’re just going to look at him. Hattie is surprised and says that she “thought there might be trouble.” When she asks the Browns if they’re planning to lynch the white man, Mr. Brown hollers with laughter, shouting, “Why, bless you, child, no! We’re going to shake his hand. Ain’t we, everyone?”
Mr. Brown’s comment about almost forgetting what a white man is like underscores the Martians’ isolation from Earth. Meanwhile, Hattie’s question regarding whether the Martians will lynch the white man clarifies her earlier anxiety while talking to her children; she is worried that the Martians will react vengefully and violently to the white man’s visit. Mr. Brown’s surprise and cheerfulness suggests that Hattie’s concerns may be overblown.
Hattie notices her husband Willie driving by and shouts for him. Angrily, he asks why she’s in this part of town and not at home with the kids. Willie glares at the Browns and asks them if they’re going to see the white man “like a bunch of fools.” Mr. Brown smiles and affirms that they are planning to do just that. Willie gruffly tells them to bring their guns, as he’s on his way home to grab his own.
Willie is immediately established as being domineering and abrasive. His impulse to go home and get his guns is a sharp contrast from Mr. Brown’s warm, cheerful affirmation that he just wants to shake the white man’s hand.
Willie demands that Hattie get in his car and glares at her until she complies. As Willie races down the road, Hattie asks him to slow down. Driving even faster, Willie answers, “Not so fast, huh? We’ll see about that.” Willie asks why Earth people think they have the right to come to Mars, and why they didn’t “blow themselves up on that old world and let us be.” Hattie cautions her husband, pointing out that it’s not very Christian to talk like that. Sharply, Willie tells his wife that he’s “not feeling Christian.” He’s “just feeling mean.”
Willie asserts his power and dominance over his wife by forcing her to get into the car and driving faster when she asks him to slow down. He ignores the fact that she’s clearly uncomfortable, which hints at his inability to empathize with other people and put aside his own pride. His comment about the Earth people “blow[ing] themselves up” further reflects how anger has made him unfeeling and inhumane.
Willie asks Hattie if she remembers “what they did to our folks,” and how white people hung his father on Knockwood Hill and shot his mother. He asks if she’s “got a memory that’s short like the others,” but Hattie asserts that she remembers. Continuing his rant, Willie asks if Hattie remembers Dr. Phillips and Mr. Burton, white men who lived in big houses and were responsible for hanging Willie’s father. Wildly, Willie claims that “the shoe’s on the other foot now,” continuing, “We’ll see who gets laws passed against him, who gets lynched, who rides the back of streetcars, who gets segregated in shows.”
Willie suggests that other Martians have been too quick to let go of their painful memories of racism and bitterness toward white people. Willie shows that he has good reason to still be angry: his own parents were murdered by racist white men. His comment about how “the shoe’s on the other foot now” echoes the story’s theme of revenge: Willie wants to reverse the Jim Crow laws—racial segregation laws in America that were still in effect at the time of Bradbury’s writing—so that they discriminate against white people rather than black people.
Hattie tells her husband that he’s “talking trouble,” but Willie dismisses her. He says that for years people have idly wondered what would happen if a white man came to Mars and now that the day has come they “can’t run away.” When Hattie asks if Willie is going to let the white people live on Mars, Willie says yes but his smile is cruel and his eyes are filled with anger. He claims that the white people can certainly come to Mars and work—that is, if they live in “the slums, and shine our shoes for us, and mop up our trash, and sit in the last row in the balcony.” Willie asserts this is a simple request, and adds that “once a week we hang one of two of them.”
Willie’s actions reflect the exact “trouble” Hattie expressed concern about earlier in the story. This moment foreshadows Willie’s role in stirring up animosity and vengefulness among the Martian community. Willie’s idea for Jim Crow laws that target white people reflect the terrible and inhumane treatment black people were subjected to on Earth.
Hattie disapprovingly tells Willie that he doesn’t “sound human,” but he tells her to “get used to it.” Pulling up to their house, Willie commands her to find his guns and some rope so that they can “do this right.” Hattie doesn’t move. Crying, “Oh, Willie,” she sits in the car while her husband dashes wildly into the house.
By telling her husband that he doesn’t “sound human,” Hattie points out how Willie’s desire for revenge has robbed him of his humanity. Once again, however, Willie coldly ignores his wife’s concerns, reflecting the tunnel vision created by anger.
Eventually, Hattie reluctantly goes into the house as well. Peering up into the dark attic, she can’t see Willie at all—she can only hear his swearing and see the “brutal metal” of the guns “glittering in the black attic.” When Willie climbs down from the attic, he’s coated in dust, and his face is “stern and heavy and folded in upon the gnawing bitterness there.” Hattie watches her husband muttering to himself, repeating the phrase “leave us alone” and madly flapping his arms. When Hattie tries to get Willie’s attention, he looks at her cruelly, and she feels as though she can sense the “pressure” of his hatred.
Willie’s rage continues to control his behavior and rob him of both empathy and rationality. His muttering and uncontrollable movements suggest that he is on the brink of hysteria, while his twisted facial expression reveal that his bitterness and hatred is hurting not only those around him, but also himself.
In the yard, Hattie’s boys chatter about the white man, saying that he is white like milk, chalk, and flowers. Willie “shove[s]” his children inside, telling them they won’t see and can’t talk about the white man. Before getting back into the car, Willie fetches paint, a stencil, and a rope, which he quickly ties into a noose.
By tying the rope into a noose, Willie gestures to the United States’ history of racism and cruelty toward black people. Lynching was often a public act used to threaten and spread fear among black people, and the noose itself became a symbol of white supremacy groups. Just as Willie wants to establish Jim Crow laws that target white people, Willie puts the “shoe on the other foot” by bringing a noose to meet the white man.
Back on the road, Hattie tells Willie to “slow up,” but he refuses, insisting it is time to hurry. The road is lined with other people getting into cars and staring up at the sky. In many of the cars, guns “stick up […] like telescopes sighting all the evils of a world coming to an end.” Noticing the guns, Hattie blames her husband for “talking.” He says that he went to every house and told people to bring guns, paint, and rope, and to “be ready.” Gleefully, he says, “And here we all are, the welcoming committee, to give them a key to the city.”
Once again, Hattie asks Willie to slow down, and he does the opposite to assert his dominance and power. This passage also reveals Willie’s influence in the community at large. While people like the Browns resisted Willie’s violent call to action, many others were apparently swept up in Willie’s hatred and hysteria. Willie sarcastically compares the Martians armed with guns and ropes to a “welcoming committee,” implying that the white man’s welcome will be anything but warm and generous.
As Willie navigates the throng of cars, Hattie feels anxiety and fear churning through her. People from other cars tote their ropes and guns, yelling, “Hey, Willie, look!” When the car comes to a halt in a field, Willie kicks the door open and begins unloading his weapons. Hattie tries to get Willie to stop and think about what he is doing, but he claims that he’s spent the last twenty years thinking. He says that when he left Earth at sixteen, he was happy to leave, because “there wasn’t anything there for me or you or anybody like us.” He says that they’ve had peace on Mars, which allowed them to draw “a solid breath” for the first time.
Willie underscores the ways in which black people on Earth were made to feel unwelcome and alienated in society, a fact that catalyzed their desire to move to Mars. On Mars, the Martians finally were able to find peace and a sense of communal belonging, which the white man’s arrival may threaten.
A crowd surrounds Willie and asks what to do. Willie begins passing out weapons, and the crowd is so dense that it looks “like one dark body with a thousand arms reaching out to take the weapons.” Everyone chants Willie’s name. Hattie, however, stands silently next to her husband and cries. Willie commands her to bring him a gallon of paint, and she complies.
Willie quickly becomes the unofficial leader of the crowd, showing how one individual has the power to influence the masses. By describing the crowd as “one dark body,” Bradbury suggests it is no longer made up of individual people with independent thoughts; rather, the crowd has adopted a mob mentality and bends to Willie’s will.
A trolley car pulls up. Fastened to its front is a freshly-painted sign reading, “To the White Man’s Landing.” Crowds of people pour out of the trolley car, including women carrying picnic baskets and men wearing straw hats. Climbing into the empty trolley, Willie begins to paint. The conductor objects, but when he sees that Willie has painted “For Whites: Rear Section,” the conductor smiles and says, “That suits me just fine, sir.”
While some people bring guns for the white man’s arrival, others bring picnic baskets. This contrast echoes the disparity between Mr. Brown’s hearty laughter at the thought of lynching the white visitor and Willie’s insistence that he bring a rope with the noose already tied. Clearly, not everyone is as revenge-minded as Willie.
Returning to the growing crowd, Willie climbs onto packing boxes and asks for volunteers to paint streetcars and rope off theater seats (“the last two rows for whites”). Several people run off toward the town to complete their assigned tasks. Willie then calls for a new law to be passed banning intermarriages between races and commands the shoeshine boys to quit their jobs. Willie says that the town needs a minimum wage law, too—ten cents an hour for white people.
The packing boxes serve as Willie’s soapbox, further portraying him as a leader. Once again, by calling for Jim Crow laws that discriminate against white people, Willie consequently shows the inhumane treatment black people were subjected to on Earth. This likely touches an emotional nerve among his audience, spurring them to give in to mob mentality and go along with Willie’s emotionally charged plans.
Hurrying toward Willie, the town’s mayor demands he climb down off of the boxes and asserts that Willie is forming a mob. Willie simply replies, “That’s the idea.” The mayor tells Willie that he’s “no better than some of those white men you yell about.” Willie objects, claiming, “This is the other shoe, Mayor, and the other foot.” When the mayor threatens Willie, Willie calls for an election to get a new mayor.
For the second time, Willie gestures to the story’s title. From his perspective, revenge against white people is completely warranted because it is merely a reflection of what white people did to black people on Earth. The mayor suggests that cruelty is never warranted, but is powerless against Willie—further emphasizing the latter’s influence in the community.
Willie looks toward the town, where people are hanging freshly-painted signs reading, “Limited Clientele: Right to serve customer revokable [sic] at any time.” The “chuckling men” bustle through town, roping off theater seats and painting streetcar seats white. Meanwhile, their wives stand on the curb silently and their children are “hid[den] away from this awful time.”
The fact that men are swept up in Willie’s call for a violent, authoritative stand while the women remain helplessly on the sidelines (just like Hattie did earlier) reflects the gendered expectations of masculinity and femininity of Bradbury’s era. The women are reticent to participate, suggesting they have more empathy than their husbands and don’t want other people to face the same racism, cruelty, and pain that the Martians experienced on Earth.
Holding the rope tied into a noose, Willie addresses the crowd and asks if they’re ready. Half of the crowd eagerly calls back, “Ready!” The other half whispers “like figures in a nightmare in which they wished no participation.”
The crowd contains people who “wished no participation,” but those people are unable to break away from the mob and act independently, emphasizing the danger of mob mentality and the overwhelming pressure to fit in with a group.
A young boy shouts that the rocket ship is approaching, and “like marionette heads on a single string, the heads of the crowd turn upward.” As the rocket swoops down to Mars, the crowd gasps. Suddenly, the rocket’s large door slides open, and a tired-looking old white man steps out. The crowd begins to murmur, “A white man, a white man, a white man…”
Earlier, the crowd was compared to a single body with thousands of arms, and now it is like a “single string” with many “marionette heads.” The puppeteer is Willie, who can manipulate the crowd however he wishes.
The white man is tall and frail. His eyes are “colorless, almost white and sightless with things he had seen in the passing years.” He extends a shaky hand in greeting and “half smile[s]” but then quickly puts his hand down. The crowd is motionless. Looking into the crowd, the white man “did not see the guns and the ropes.”
Surprisingly, the Martians greet the old man with tension and silence rather than immediate chaos and violence. This reflects the fact that the white man appears weary and drained—and, as such, lacks a threatening presence.
Addressing the crowd, the old man says that he will not offer his name, as it doesn’t really matter who he is. He says that twenty years ago (which feels “more like twenty centuries” ago), when the Martians left Earth, war broke out. He calls the war “The Third One,” and says that it went on until last year. All of the major cities are gone, including New York, Paris, London, and Shanghai. Even small cities have been demolished—including Greenwater, Alabama. Upon hearing this, Willie’s jaw drops.
By refusing to give his name, the old man humbles himself and reduces his personal importance. He swiftly moves on to describing the disastrous effects of World War III. Willie’s reaction to hearing the name Greenwater, Alabama suggests that Greenwater was his hometown on Earth.
The old man continues, saying that the cotton fields have all burned, the cotton mills have been bombed, and the factories are radioactive. Everything is radioactive in fact—even roads and food. He lists more towns that have been destroyed, and people in the crowd whisper in shock when they hear that their hometowns have been demolished. A wave of nostalgia overtakes the crowd as they think of the places that were once so familiar to them having been reduced to rubble.
The old man specifically says that the cotton fields and cotton mills have been destroyed—artifacts of slavery in the American South. This is the first indication that certain aspects of racism and prejudice were destroyed in the war.
The white man tells the crowd that “we destroyed everything and ruined everything, like the fools that we were and the fools that we are.” Millions of people are dead, and now there are only five hundred thousand people left on Earth. The destruction is so severe, that they could only find enough metal to make this one rocket so that they could come to Mars to find help.
By calling the Earth people fools (himself included), the white man shows humility and willingness to set aside his pride. The white man doesn’t make excuses or justifications for the Earth people’s behavior. Assuming “The Other Foot” is set around 1985, there would have been about five billion people on Earth during that time—Earth’s population being reduced to five hundred thousand reflects a planet on the verge of total destruction.
Willie tenses and his fingers tighten around his rope. The old man repeats, “We’ve been fools.” He says that none of the cities can be saved, as everything will be radioactive for at least the next century. He points out that the Martians have lots of rockets, which they used to get to Mars twenty years prior. He asks for permission to use the rockets to bring the survivors from Earth to Mars.
Here, the old man finally reveals the purpose of his visit to Mars: to ask the Martians for help by letting the Earth people borrow their rockets and come live on Mars. Willie’s fingers tightening on the rope show that his aggression is flaring up. Perhaps he thinks the Earth people shouldn’t ask for or expect help from the Martians after the way that the Martians were treated for so long.
The old man says that Earth people have been “stupid,” and they admit their evilness “before God.” On behalf of the Americans, the British, the Russians, the Indians, and the Chinese, he asks the Martians to take the Earth people in. He knows that there’s room for everyone on Mars, and he’s seen from above that the soil is fertile. He asserts that it is up to the Martians, though. If they want, he will get back into his rocket ship and never come back. On the other hand, if the Martians allow the Earth people to come live with them, the white man says Earth people will do all the things they once forced black people to do.
Although most of the story has centered on the tension between white people and black people, it’s clear that white people aren’t the only race left on Earth. Once again, the old man humbles himself before the Martians, as he recognizes that the Earth people are undeserving of help. The white man is unaware of the Martians’ plan to establish reverse Jim Crow laws, and yet he seems to suggest the very same thing. This further reflects his humility and belief that Earth people are deserving of the same treatment they subjected the Martians to.
The silence of the crowd feels “like a pressure of a distant storm.” Many people watch Willie, who is still holding the rope. Hattie holds her husband’s arm and waits. She wants to extract the hate from everyone in the crowd, “to pry at it and work at it until she found a little chink, and then pull out a pebble or a stone or a brick” so that “the whole edifice might roar down and be done away with.” She knows that the crowd’s hatred is “teetering,” but she can’t figure out what is the “keystone” that will make everyone abandon their hate for good.
Suddenly, Hattie realizes that Willie is the “keystone,” and “if he could be pried loose,” then maybe everyone’s hatred will fall away, too. Stepping forward from the silent crowd, Hattie asks the old man about Knockwood Hill in Greenwater, Alabama. Someone in the rocket ship hands the old man a map. Hattie asks if the big oak on the top of the hill is still there, and the old man says both the tree and the hill are gone. He holds out a photograph, which Willie gruffly asks to see.
Hattie wisely decides to focus her efforts on dismantling her husband’s hatred rather than trying to go up against the entire crowd. When she asks the old man about Knockwood Hill—which Willie earlier said is the place where his father was hanged by two racist white men—Hattie attempts to show Willie that the Earth’s mass destruction means that many painful remnants of slavery and racism have also been destroyed.
With her heart pounding, Hattie asks the old man if Dr. Phillips and his son are still alive. A machine clicks within the rocket, and the old man confirms that Dr. Phillips and his son both died in the war. Their house also burned down, just like all the other houses. When Hattie asks about the other big tree on Knockwood Hill, the old man affirms that all of the trees were destroyed. Willie speaks up, asking, “That tree went, you’re sure?” When the man confirms, Willie’s body loosens.
Hattie taps into Willie’s painful memory of his father’s hanging in order to show Willie that the hill, lynching tree, and man responsible for the murder have all been destroyed. Since Willie’s vengefulness is largely fueled by what happened to his parents, Hattie attempts to show Willie that in many ways, justice has already been served for wicked, racist men.
Willie asks about Mr. Burton and his house, and the old man says that no people or homes are left in Greenwater. Willie then asks about his mother’s washing shack—where she was shot—and the old man says that the shack is gone, too. He passes out pictures to the crowd: “The pictures were there to be held and looked at and thought about.” The entire rocket is full of pictures to answer questions about any place on Earth.
Now Willie takes over asking questions, revealing that Hattie’s plan is beginning to work. He asks about his mother—the other half of the driving force behind his long-held animosity toward white people—and learns that reminders of her death are gone, too.
With the rope still in his hands, Willie thinks about the Earth that he knew, “the green Earth and the green town where he was born and raised.” He thinks about how everything has been destroyed, and “all of the supposed or certain evil scattered with it.” He thinks about “all of the hard men gone,” as well as the soda fountains, cows, roads, plantation homes, bars, and “lynching trees.” All of this is “gone and never coming back.” The entire civilization has been “ripped into confetti and strewn at their feet,” and now there is “nothing of it left to hate.” He thinks the only thing left to hate is a group of alien people “who might shine his shoes and ride in the back of trolleys or sit far up in midnight theaters…”
Physical artifacts of racism—“lynching trees,” bars populated by racist white men, plantation homes—played a large part in Willie’s long-held anger and bitterness toward the past. Now that those artifacts are gone, there is “nothing of it left to hate.” Here, Willie realizes that his reverse Jim Crow laws would actually perpetuate painful memories of racism and create even more pain for everyone, Martians and Earthlings alike.
Willie loosens his fingers, and the rope drops to the ground. He tells the white man that Earth people won’t have to work for Martians. With these words, the Martians run through the town, tearing down their newly installed signs and cutting down the ropes in the theaters.
Willie drops the rope to the ground, consequently letting go of his pride and his desire for power, authority, and revenge. He refuses to perpetuate a system based on prejudice. Hattie has successfully “pried” the hatred out of Willie, and since he is the unofficial leader of the crowd, his reaction has a domino effect.
In the car on the way home, Hattie affirms that this will be “A new start for everyone.” After a while, Willie answers that God allowed them to come to Mars, and that “what happens next is up to all of us. The time for being fools is over.” He explains that when the white man was addressing the crowd, Willie realized that white people have now experienced the loneliness and homelessness that the Martians used to feel on Earth. Because of that, everyone is now equal and “on the same level.”
Just as the white man used the word “fools” to refer to himself and his fellow Earth people, Willie also calls himself and his community “fools.” In this way, Willie takes responsibility for emboldening the crowd towards vengeance. Willie is also able to find common ground with the Earth people and empathize with their experience of loneliness and homelessness in the wake of World War III.
At home, Willie sits in the car while Hattie lets the boys out of the house. The children run out to their father asking if he saw the white man, and Willie responds, “Yes sir […] Seems like for the first time today I really seen the white man—I really seen him clear.”
When Willie says that saw the white man clearly, he means that he was finally able to empathize and find common ground with a people he had hated for so long.