Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope… and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. — Robert F. Kennedy
I discovered Evelyn Coleman’s White Socks Only while browsing through this website that features a list of picture books by and about African Americans. Luckily, it was available in our local library, and it is my pleasure to write a short feature about it as part of our Black History Month special.
A Tale Within a Tale. White Socks Only begins with a grandmother and her grandchild talking on the porch one hot summer’s day in Mississippi. The little girl asked if she can walk into town by herself. Her grandmother turned and spit in her can, rocked two times, closed her eyes, then looked at the little girl. The question seemed to have been asked a million times, since this whole affair between grandma and grandchild appeared ritualistic. In Myra’s review of David Almond’s Slog’s Dad, she mentioned the power of vernacular language. The grandmother’s response to the little girl also has the same powerful effect:
“You know you ain’t big enough to walk into no town alone, girl. I sho’ don’t know why you asking me that. You ain’t big enough ’til you gon’ do some good there.”
I can clearly hear the Southern accent from those lines. I liked the way the words went “a-rollin” down my tongue. The way the grandmother spoke to the little one was neither demeaning nor condescending. The little girl was treated like an adult, spoken to like an adult even though “she ain’t big enough to walk into town.”
Another thing worth mentioning is how artist Tyrone Geter portrayed the grandmother. She was clothed in a brightly-colored blue dress that reminded me of traditional African clothing. It was paired with a bright orange bandanna that complemented the colorful pattern on her dress as well as her jewelry. Certainly not your typical grandmother.
And So Grandmother’s Tale Begins. The power of vernacular language continues as the grandmother spoke of a time when she was a little girl like her grandchild and decided to walk into town by herself, and not planning to do some good.
I sneaked on up that road a’singin, “Jump back Sally, Sally, Sally. Walking up the alley, alley, alley” to nobody but myself. And child, was it hot! On that kind of a day a firecracker might light up by itself.
I watched that egg like the old men watch the checkers before making a move. For a minute I thought it wasn’t gon’ do nothing. Then… I saw it. One little bit was turning white. Next the white creeped wider and the yellow began to bubble… I jumped up and started dancing and prancing.
The Age of Innocence During a Time of Segregation. Mission accomplished, little Sally left the town. Because it was a mighty hot day, she found herself mighty thirsty. On her way, she spotted a drinking fountain. The sign on the fountain said, “Whites Only.”
Well, I knew what that meant. So I sat down in the grass and took off my shiny black patent-leather shoes. Now I only had on my clean white socks. I stepped up on that stool with those white socks hugging my feet.
For an emotional junkie such as myself, that scene was deeply moving. Little Sally was the epitome of innocence. Although she “wasn’t planning on doing no good,” she was a good child. The scene that followed was a test of her goodness.
The Big White Man and the Chicken Man. Little Sally’s action stirred a commotion in town. Soon after drinking from the fountain, she found herself on the ground. A big white man was standing in front of her. Accusing her of not being able to read, the white man began tugging at his belt, planning to “whup you ’til you can’t sit down.”
Little Sally’s bravery led other black folks to drink from the fountain. Even during this scene, one can clearly see little Sally’s innocence.
They had on clean-looking green socks and yellow socks and red socks and blue socks. Of course, the big man with the bandanna kept right on yelling. His face got red as fire. He was snorting through his nose like a bull does when it’s gon’ charge.
The big white man started hitting little Sally and everybody else at close range. But poor little Sally only wanted a drink from a fountain! When everything seemed hopeless, a man known in town as the Chicken Man walked through. Without saying anything, he pointed a finger at the white man. It was the last time they had seen of him. From the on, the “Whites Only” sign was removed from that water fountain forever.
An Afterthought. White Socks Only is my first Evelyn Coleman book. She certainly has a way with words and her powerful storytelling is brimming with magic and charm. It is worth noting that this book was inspired by her memories of places she could not go to and things she could not do because of her skin color.
This 32-page pictre book is a keeper. Evelyn Coleman’s magical words are complemented by Tyrone Geter’s beautiful painting. White Socks Only exposes children to socio-political issues concerning segregation, and teaches them that one should not be judged just by skin color. Franklin Thomas could not have said it any better:
One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings.