I traveled to Cape May, New Jersey, this summer; the beach and the vineyards had drawn me there. As my friend and I drove into town, the number of American flags and flag buntings was off-putting.
Are we safe? I thought.
We eased into the parking lot at the bed and breakfast, and the host was very warm and welcoming. This made us feel better, more comfortable, until I asked her about Ubering to wineries.
“Yes. Uber to the wineries. Relax. And enjoy. Besides, the Cape May cops are a bit… serious about their jobs.”
That’s just what we need, to be two tipsy Black girls pulled over by cops, here, in Cape May. And that became a joke for the remainder of the trip. Behind the joke was a tinge of discomfort.
Is this space available to me?
Apprehension persisted through a few encounters, but we intended to enjoy the wine, so we made quips about how we were treated and kept sipping.
At Willow Creek, the staff seemed not to notice us. We had to enter deep into the establishment to find someone to help us. People continuously walked by us or looked away from us. I looked at my friend with raised eyebrows and a grimace. We had to stand directly in the way of someone to get her to stop. Even then, she didn’t say a word; she just looked at us and said, “What?” with her eyes. In another space, the establishment’s lack of courteousness would have driven me to spend my dollars elsewhere. But they were already spent—the tasting was prepaid. I explained that we were there for our scheduled wine tasting. She had us sit and wait for someone to accommodate us; we sat on the edge of our seats, uncertainty accompanying us.
But we were on vacation. We specifically wanted to experience a wine country not too far from home. When we were finally seated outside to float in the cross breezes from the bay and the ocean, a staff member put a pitcher of water on the edge of our table. He neither looked at us nor said a word. My friend and I exchanged knowing looks. We weren’t in D.C. anymore.
At another winery, the staff was stand-offish, aloof. We didn’t feel welcome. Faces pouring wine behind the counter smiled at white patrons, but their affects were flat when they looked at us—or through us.
But Natali Vineyards emitted the vibe that wine did not have to be pretentious. On this specific evening, they were not serving their tapas menu, which featured Nathan’s hot dogs. This specific vineyard knew exactly what they were doing with the creation of their menu and choice of food truck that served barbeque, pulled pork, brisket and the like. They were opening their arms to a wider population in terms of taste buds and the influences that created those buds. They were making access to wine culture less elitist. Or at least they were trying. Because yet and still, we were the only people of color, besides the cooks on the truck, during our entire visit. Guests moved around us and did not make eye contact. Being the only people of color at establishments full of white patrons makes one hyper-aware of their surroundings. Sliding into easiness is hard. I found myself overcompensating. Changing the tone of my voice, trying to be overly pleasant, asking lots of questions to prove my interest and that I belonged.
We did, however, meet a few people that made us smile and gave us hope. The wine educator at Willow Creek, a woman of color, was warm and welcoming. She taught us to sip a little wine to cleanse our palates from whatever was lingering in our mouths, then to stick our noses in our glasses. It was as if the tongue and nose regions were teaming up to deliver the ultimate sensory punch (which we learned was called retronasal sniff). She engaged us with casual conversation, and her encouragement for us to disrupt the uniformity of the vineyards and take pictures in those in-between spaces helped us relax.
But all spaces aren’t freely open to all people despite our society’s dated claims of being ultimately democratic. And today, in 2022, it’s baffling and terrifying to experience this firsthand.
Just a few months earlier, my son and I visited New Orleans for a cousin’s wedding. We chose to do a haunted historical tour of the French Quarter, and to our surprise, we were the only people of color in the group. Our home is in a suburb of Washington, D.C.; we are not used to being the only people of color anywhere. And it was least expected in a town like New Orleans.
During our walking tour, someone yelled from their party bus, “Niggers!” My body tensed. My son’s countenance shifted. What if they found us on the next street over? What if they had guns? I tried to keep us in the middle of the group as we continued on with our tour. We had to stay with the group, even if we weren’t very comfortable with the group. I went to college in New Orleans; my family was from New Orleans. I had been in the French Quarter so many times before, but this was the first time I noticed a demographic shift.
Our tour guide had been thoughtful about the language she used when describing enslaved peoples’ experiences during one of our stops. She never once called them “slaves.” That kind of word care is important, especially when you’re only the Black people in the crowd. Her care and informative, dynamic storytelling were the reasons we didn’t leave mid-tour, despite remaining fearful until we made it to our hotel.
It seems our nation is retreating backwards.
In New Jersey, the rows of American flags and flag bunting we encountered as we drove into Cape May had made my friend and I hyperconscious of our surroundings. There was something about the bunting reminiscent of the most recent campaign trail, and the lack of people of color made us feel we were not necessarily in friendly territory. As we connected to the WiFi, “Trump Country” was a network name. This connection that the local people felt to the former president made us uncomfortable. To us, he was a symbol of recklessness, racism, nasty rhetoric and jingoism. These ideologies were now proudly on display across America, causing people of color to be more aware and fearful.
We had traveled the open seas, or up I-95, in our own country, into unfriendly territory. We just wanted to explore a small wine country and move about freely in our land. Because vineyards depend on the soil, air and climate, can you separate the vine from the land?
Were we unwise, ignorant or naive? Though we had several moments of discomfort and apprehension, we failed to dwell on our decision-making. Our accommodations were paid for and non-refundable, and we were like Adele: We drink wine. How else does one stick to their plans and actually vacation? We enjoyed every flight, bottle and sip of wine. Ultimately, it wasn’t just the taste that was appealing; the education behind the grapes and wine-making process made the experience rich and delightful and offered a counterbalance to the feeling that we were in a vastly different world right in the nation we call home.