Ella Mae’s shoes are always hand-me-downs from her cousin Charlotte. When the new-used pair from Charlotte don’t fit, Ella Mae and her mother go to Johnson’s for Ella Mae’s first ever new pair of shoes. But shoe-shopping isn’t the unmitigated pleasure Ella Mae had imagined.
“How can I help you now?” Mr. Johnson says to us.
I point to a display of saddle shoes. “I want to try those on, sir!” I say.
I hear Mama suck in her breath. “Oh, we’ll do something different, Ella Mae,” she says. “We’ll make a picture of your feet for Mr. Johnson.”
“But…,” I start to say.
“Pencil and paper are over there, gal,” Mr. Johnson says to Mama.
In America in the 1950s, African Americans like Ella Mae were served after whites in stores and restaurants, even if they had arrived first. Black Americans were not allowed to vote; they were not even allowed to try on articles of clothing, such as shoes, to see if they would fit. The pervasive prejudice Ella Mae and her family faces is evident in the language Mr. Johnson uses and in every detail of the illustrations of that scene. Although the text does not linger on the crushing injustice of the time, the words and pictures nevertheless carry a sense of the broader effects (the evils) of segregation and discrimination.
Ella Mae and Charlotte’s plan defies not only the prejudice of whites like Mr. Johnson but the whole implicit goal of institutional racism. Ella Mae and Charlotte not only restore their own sense of self-respect, they give their community the dignity that Mr. Johnson would strip from them. In the face of unbearable, relentless oppression they find an alternate, unexpected course of action, and they embark on it with imagination, courage, and hope.
A small victory? Yeah, maybe. Sometimes small victories are what allow the war to continue.
The author’s note is also worth reading. She acknowledges the extreme discrimination, and celebrates the ways that (nonfictional) black communities resisted injustice. The note also touches on the choice of language in the text: at one point, Ella Mae describes herself as “colored.” The note points out that this is the term used in the 1950s, and gives the terms used today.
The illustrations add details and nuance. The attentive reader will see, for instance, the dilemma Ella Mae’s mother faces, as a black woman wanting justice but needing to protect her child, and the oblivious privilege of the white family shopping at the same time. The body language is a particular strength, from the first page to the triumphant last.
Charlotte and I smile. We hold our heads up proud.