Earlier this month I scrawled write windows in my notebook as a reminder of the next letter I wanted to send. Then the world erupted and words felt insufficient for all the things I was feeling and thinking.
A few days ago, I stumbled upon this interview with poets Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez. The entire conversation reverberates with wisdom and beauty, but when Clifton talks about mirrors and windows, her words speak directly to me. She explains that all people need “mirrors in which they can see themselves and windows through which they can see the world.” She furthers that to only have one or the other is a disadvantage.
When I looked at the definition of the word “window,” it described a “means of entrance” or “admission.” Windows are the bold incisions that slice open thick walls: the physical walls of our homes and the metaphorical walls that divide us. They let us observe, watch and wonder.
When you grow up a minority you quickly learn the value of windows. The urgency of them for your own survival; to piece together some sense of belonging or comfort. When you’re a black person walking into a majority white space, your existence is disruptive. Your presence evokes the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned of others who navigated that unspoken question in subversive and creative ways. I chose, subconsciously, to start fervently seeking out windows. They were not hard to find: television shows, commercials, preteen books, and a first row seat in the lives of my white peers. Together they composed the instruction manual for what it meant to be normal. What it meant to belong. I watched closely, my face pressed to the glass, for most of my childhood.
Mirrors, on the other hand, evaded me. When I did see reflections of myself at church, with family, through historical figures or pop culture icons, the pride and shame that wrestled in my chest wouldn’t let me look closely for too long. I could not puzzle how to allow my blackness, undiluted, to live fully in the white worlds surrounding me. For a long time my solution was to turn myself into a classroom. I regularly pulled out parts of myself for others to dissect and examine. I explained away microaggressions, excused ignorance and expected very little from the people who were supposed to love and care for me. I often think back with sadness on moments with friends, peers and mentors where I was compelled to neatly package and justify my pain in order to sustain our relationships. My heart breaks for the little girl who believed from a young age that she was a problem and felt deeply accountable to solve it.
Only in the last few years have I started to steadily look in the mirror — to curate and consume images of myself. To create the kind of affirming reality that I lacked growing up. I find strength in others who are and have been living robust lives and rejecting anyone or anything that questions their right to live fully: my queer, trans, disabled, brown kin to whom I have not given nearly enough attention and reverence. I similarly marvel at marginalized folks who balance their unapologetic lives with educating those who often take for granted or disregard their generosity.
This season of racial and social reckoning feels different than others I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. This time around, I am asking others to look up from their mirrors. To see the windows that surround them as “an interval of time during which certain conditions or an opportunity exists,” and seize that opportunity to grow and change. Indeed, windows can be a kind of passage: “A way of exit or entrance . . . the action or process of passing from one place, condition, or stage to another.” Sometimes passages are profound pieces of written text. Sometimes they are global crises. Sometimes they are intimate conversations. What’s central to a passage is that you do not return to where you came from. Amid all the discomfort and newness you become forever changed.
May we be forever changed.