Skip to main content

poetry The Day I Discovered Racism (1965)

W.D. Ehrhart’s poem “The Day I Discovered Racism” leaves the reader first with shock and then….

The Day I Discovered Racism (1965)

By William Ehrhart


We were driving an English Vauxhall

we’d bought in Santa Rosa, New Mexico,

for $67 and the trade-in for our ancient

Chevy that had blown an engine

the night before and now sat useless

along the Interstate west of town.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

The Vauxhall didn’t have a speedometer

or any other gauges, only empty holes

in the dashboard where gauges

should have been, no gas pedal, just

a metal pin through the floor, no

gas cap, no oil cap, no windshield

wipers, and no headlights until we

found the switchbox beneath the back

seat and hooked it up with masking tape;

the heat kept melting the tape, so we

had to retape it every hour or so.


But we’d gotten as far as Louisiana,

early morning, a two-lane road through

cane fields and cypress trees and bayous

when we got a flat. And of course, no

spare tire.  So we’re sitting there

by the side of the road scratching

our heads and wondering what to do

next when a car pulls up and two

Black men get out and ask us if

we need any help.  And we’re starting

to explain when a pick-up truck

comes to a screeching halt and two

white men get out and start pushing

and threatening the two Black men

and chasing them off with a warning

to leave the white boys alone.


Then, as nice as can be, they offer

to drive us to the nearest town

to get our tire fixed, and they treat us

to breakfast while we wait for the tire,

then drive us back to our car and put

the tire back on before wishing the four

of us a safe trip home to Pennsylvania.

W. D. Ehrhart's most recent poetry collections are Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems (McFarland, 2019) and Wolves in Winter (Between Shadows Press, 2021).  He is a retired high school teacher and a veteran of both the US Marine Corps and Vietnam Veterans Against the War.