I’m sitting and pondering on this, the last day of February 2014 and the last day of Black History Month. I’m sipping on a glass of 2012 House of Mandela Sauvignon Blanc (quite good, by the way – clear, pale, touch of spritz, grapefruit, green gooseberries, grassiness but not NZ overdone, some RS) and thinking about some of the decisions I’ve made over the course of the last year or so.
As I’ve said countless times to anyone who would listen, 2014 is my year of total wine immersion. I didn’t get here on a whim; there was a lot of thought and soul-searching to come to the decisions that I’ve made. I’ve had to fight a lot of years of mistaken stereotypes, assumptions, and beliefs. And let’s face it, when you grow up with certain repetitions, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll believe it. It takes an act of will to separate yourself from your beginnings sometimes, but it’s necessary for personal growth.
I grew up in the inner city of Philadelphia, PA. I grew up with a fixed definition of what I was supposed to be which I took as truth.
I realized early on that I really liked classical music. Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky were my heroes. In my neighborhood that could get you beat up. Badly. However, in my own household I heard, “Black people don’t listen to that type of music.” I liked it anyway and would listen to it whenever I could snag a 9V battery for my transistor radio and find something on the then-new FM stations.
We had a neighbor who, according to my household, “made a lot of racket.” As it turned out, it was Wilhelmina Fernandez, then a budding opera star. The music that “black people don’t listen to…” was being sung by our neighbor as she practiced her scales. I never had the opportunity to attend any of her performances, but it certainly got me to thinking. What else do “we” not do that others do? And why don’t “we” do it? Lack of cool? Desire to stay to ourselves? Not wanting to step out of our self-imposed box?
That was, unfortunately, an ongoing refrain that really bothered me as it followed me through life. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that we’d been involved in these activities all along. Andre Watts, Leontyne Price, Lee Elder, and Arthur Ashe were examples of early pioneers in those areas that black people just didn’t do. Of course there was discrimination; however, there was always the will to get past that and to succeed in their chosen fields. And then there was Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters, later becoming firmly ensconced as champions in those activities that black people really didn’t do!
When I showed dogs in the 80s and early 90s, I would often go for weeks without seeing another brown face. I loved my dogs, I loved to win, loved the fact that the kids – okay, my daughter – enjoyed the sport, and ignored the discrimination I sometimes confronted. Sometimes it was subtle, sometimes unnervingly blatant. For instance, the month after my dog Darby handily won Winners Dog at the Bernese Mountain Dog National Specialty, a judge at a local show disqualified him for lack of merit even though he never looked at the dog. He was looking at me with a glare that could only be described as malevolent and barely examined Darby. He gave the prize to a dog that could never beat Darby in any other contest and never finished his championship. However, the old school was on its way out, and I was among the first of those minorities who wanted to shine in the dog world. And I did; unfortunately “real life” turned me on another path, and I reluctantly gave up the hobby I loved so much. But I was a pioneer.
And yes, Darby easily won the remaining the points of his championship just a couple of months after that incident, earning the title of Ch. Suvan’s Dark Contender. In case you were wondering.
Fast forward to recent years. There are still some places where black people don’t yet shine. For instance, the luge and water polo. But that’s a discussion for a different day and a different blog.
Wine is another place where we are few and far between. It’s only partially because it’s something we “don’t do,” but there are a lot of factors. Many of us come from a culture of beer and spirits, not wine. So wine can be an anomaly as well as perceived as something that’s available only for those in the upper caucasion stratosphere of cultural snootery to enjoy. It hasn’t yet trickled down that in most wine-drinking countries, wine is a food enjoyed by the common folk as a part of their everyday lives. Especially in the Mediterranean where multiculturalism has been de rigeur for millenia.
The first time I was introduced to a quality wine, I was hooked. As the proverbial saying goes, lock, stock, and barrel. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor) The innocuous “white wine” that I’d been drinking suddenly showed itself as the pap that it was: dull, insipid, boring, one-dimensional. Unfortunately, “real life” once again stepped in, and it would be just over a decade before I was finally able to focus on wine as more than just an occasional drink that was just for special occasions.
Over the years I have been able to build a collection of nice wines (not “fine” wines – my budget protests whenever I try to do that) that has ranged in number from a high of 225 to the current 40-something. I’ve read, attended classes, visited wine country, sipped, swirled, and even spit as I worked hard to increase my wine knowledge. The more I’ve learned and immersed myself, the greater my passion as I realize that this wine thing is more than just a beverage.
I have realized that as a trainer, I have an overwhelming desire to teach people about wines – not the usual regions, grape types, and terroir, but the emotion, etiquette, and fun of wine. As I’ve shared my observations with others through the years, I realized one thing. I had no street cred. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been a wine aficionado for over two decades, that I’ve been able to out-taste sommeliers, that I’ve made observations and commentary about wine that no one else had, traveled, etc., etc. I didn’t have any types of formal certifications, so therefore no credibility. While that rankled for a while, it took a few events at the day job to seal the cred deal.
The day job has, most of the time, been a source of great satisfaction for me. There was a brief period when I was put on a special project that I
loathed tolerated, but that was the exception. Even when I was overworked, I looked forward to coming into work every day and doing my job. And then, in August of 2012, we were moved under the management of another department, and my work life as I knew it changed. It only took a couple of months of having been moved from autonomy and respect to an atmosphere of micromanagement and disrespect to make me consider departing. Even though my thinking skills were apparently no longer needed, I knew that I didn’t want to move for moving’s sake. My health started to be seriously affected, and when my blood pressure reached a peak of 203/103 and I was slapped under a bunch of wires, I knew things had to change. It was then that I started looking at finally acquiring the wine credentials I had postponed for so many years. It was daunting, but I finally decided to make the step.
And that’s when I discovered that this was something that not only do black people not do, but old black people who happen to be female absolutely don’t do it. What does that mean?
At the time that I’m writing this, I have earned a California Wine Appellation Specialist credential. Within the next few months, I expect to have my WSET L2, Sommelier L1 and Certified Sommelier, and Certified Specialist of Wine credentials as well. Afterwards, I plan to complete the most difficult of the credentials, which is Certified Wine Educator. I am motivated and driven to complete all of these in the shortest possible time; not only to finish them, but to finish them at the highest possible level. Every now and then my inner OCD comes to the forefront, and this is one of those times. I know wine. I just have to have the pieces of papers (and pins) to prove to others that I do. Master level? Well, maybe. After all, while I’m at it…
But I’m alone.
As far as I can tell, no other African-American woman over 60 has tackled all of these certifications and been able to complete them. I can find no one. I have googled, searched, researched, studied, asked, inquired, and more to find out if there was any other African American woman *of a certain age* who had these credentials. Of course, not everyone whom I asked has answered me. Maybe that means that they know something that I don’t. Either that or they’re not paying me any attention.
But they will. I’m going to be hard to miss.
Will I make Black History Month history? Or even regular history? Only time will tell. But I certainly think so. Or to phrase it a little more bluntly: Damn straight. I know my shit and *they* will know that I know my shit. Except that now I’ll have the pieces of paper and the pins to prove it. Just like everybody else. Except they’re not me.
Hang on and stay tuned for the adventure. This is going to be a helluva ride.