“Mirrors (for Billie Jean King)” by Nikki Giovanni

“It was [NOT] a Mistake” 

Nikki Giovanni, to the right, is one of America’s foremost poets who writes about those who fought for social justice, such as Martin Luther King Jr., and, of course, Billie Jean King. Giovanni felt outrage over the palimony suit against the tennis superstar made by her secretary Marilyn Barnett in 1981, revealing their hidden love affair during the 1970s. In her 1993 poem “Mirrors (for Billie Jean King),” Giovanni expresses outrage over this lawsuit and her anger over King’s admitting her affair was a mistake. King was an American idol and female hero at this point, and Giovanni felt King’s sexuality strengthened her position in society and aided her cause to fight for women’s equality.

Before discussing the poem in depth, however, it is important to note why looking at Giovanni’s poem is important in explaining King’s effort to create a change. As noted in Motion American Sports Poems by Noah Blaustein, “if you want to know what was going on in a culture at any given time, read the poets. Poets write about the subjects available to them” (Blaustein, xviii). By understanding how Giovanni felt about King’s situation, as expressed through her poem, we can begin to understand how many other women felt about King.

In her poem, Giovanni writes: “The face in the window… is not the face in the mirror… Mirrors aren’t for windows… they would block the light…” (lines 2-3). Giovanni is metaphorically juxtaposing mirrors and windows to describe her feelings that a person’s private and public life are not the same.  A mirror allows someone to see into a person’s private life, while a window allows someone to see into someone’s public life: “Windows / show who we hope to be… Mirrors reflect who we are…” (lines 3-4).

Private lives should remain private (23). Giovanni does make an important distinction, however, between things that are private that are not right, about which one should NOT remain silent: “There are things… / like abused children… that is public pain… // like people in wheelchairs… who need sidewalk access” (22). But then there is King’s particular situation, which should be kept private. Giovanni writes, “… BUT THINGS… like love… and promises / made after midnight… … / have no place… in the courtyard… … // Childish adults want to break / mirrors… want to shatter lives….” (23). These lines speak to the private life of a person that should be kept a secret. King’s case did not involve battery or abused children, situations that should be open to the public and tried; her situation involved the love she held for someone else. Giovanni notes that King’s sexual desires are her own and nobody’s business. When Barnett revealed love letters from King to the media, the world was able to see into King’s mirror.

Giovanni then goes on to idolize King and her sexuality, hoping to express to King that she should love who she is and not regret her actions. She writes, “One of my heroes… is a tennis player… who has the courage of her game… and her life…” (23). King meant so much to women and created a change for all female athletes to accept being a gritty, tough female athlete. By looking at the way Giovanni writes about her after experiencing her impact during the 1970s, readers can appreciate King’s true impact on women.

Finally, the poem urges King to not regret who she is and the love she felt during this time for another women. She writes,  “… but It Cannot Be A / Mistake to have cared… It Cannot Be An Error to have tried /… It Cannot Be Incorrect to have loved” (23). Giovanni uniquely highlights her desire to tell King that she made no mistake in loving Barnett by capitalizing each letter . King needs to understand how much she changed women’s lives for the best, and how much she changed female sport culture. The final section of the poem, seen above, exemplifies how much King meant to society in a beautiful way.





Blaustein, Noah, and John Edgar Wideman. Motion: American Sports Poems. University of Iowa Press, 2001.

Giovanni, Nikki. “Mirrors (for Billie Jean King).” Those Who Ride the Night Winds, Quill/Morrow, 1993, pp. 22–24.