Still I Rise by Maya Angelou is a poem published in 1978, written in response to the surge of anti-black racism in America. Angelou was an American civil rights activist as well as a poet, and often wrote about womanhood, black identity, equal rights and the pride and dignity of the black community. This particular poem focuses on maintaining courage and resilience in the face of oppression. The Civil Rights Movement lasted from 1954 to 1968. Still I Rise, written 10 years later, not only encapsulates Angelou’s experiences during the movement, but is also a nod to the fact that oppression and racism was (and is) still part of the everyday society. The tone of this poem is courageously unrelenting, inspirational and strong. There is an underlying air of impressive dignity. Angelou remains calm and steady, yet proud and firm. She does not back down, nor does she compromise her class.
Caged Bird is another terrific poem by Angelou written along the same lies, the summary of which may be read here.
Still I Rise | Summary
Maya Angelou acknowledges that her image in history may be twisted by the bitter lies of the people who try to oppress her. They trod her name into the dirt of the ground, but she will still rise like the dust does. She asks the people whether they are offended by her sassy nature. She asks why they are so upset that she walks with the confidence of one who has oil wells pumping in her room. She will still rise, with the same certainty that the sun and moon and the tides do, with her hopes high.
Angelou asks the people whether they want to see her broken, with her head bowed and eyes lowered, tears welling in them. With shoulders drooped, weakened by her sorrowful cries. She asks whether they are offended by her haughtiness- don’t they take it hard when they see her laugh so joyfully, as though she has gold mines in her backyard? She tells them that even if they use sharp words to try and shoot her, even if they glare cuttingly at her, even if they try to kill her with hate and spite, she will still rise.
Angelou asks whether the people are upset by her sexiness. Are they surprised at the way she dances so freely, as though she has diamonds on her thighs? She will rise from the shambles of history’s shame. She will rise from a past that is rooted in pain. She is like a black ocean, leaping and vast, swelling as she bears the large tide. She will leave behind the fearful nights, and she will rise into the clear daybreak. In her hands, she will carry the gifts she received from her ancestors. She presents herself as a dream, a form of hope for the slaves to look to. And she will rise.
Still I Rise | Poem Analysis
Still I Rise is written in first person narrative, and is directed towards ‘you’, which here means the oppressors- she addresses them directly. It is a nine-stanza poem of 43 lines. The first 7 stanzas follow the rhyme scheme of abcb, while the last 2 follow ababcc. The main themes of this poem are defiance against oppression, black identity and pride, racism and struggle, and resilience. Angelou employs metaphors, symbolism, imagery, repetition and rhetorical questions. The repeating phrase- which is what the poem is named after- asserts her main point heavily: that no matter what struggles and injustice is thrown at her, she will stand tall and overcome them.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 1-4
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Angelou begins with the word ‘You’, showing that she is indeed addressing her oppressors. This establishes a sense of strength from her end, and creates a resilient tone for the piece. She acknowledges the way that, very often, the oppressed and marginalized communities are written into history through a negative lens despite being the ones who had suffered. She affirms that this may happen to her, too, citing bitterness as one of the oppressor’s motivating factors to twist her image. When she says, “You may trod me in the very dirt”, it holds a figurative meaning- it represents the way the oppressors may attempt to tear down her name and tarnish her image, covering it with dirt. But even then, she will rise from their torment. She likens herself to dust, because it has the nature of floating above the ground- hence this signifies that though the oppressors will try to drag her to the ground, she will float above them all.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 5-8
“Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.”
Angelou asks a rhetorical question here. It is almost as if she is challenging the oppressors, showcasing her positive qualities and suggesting that they are threatened by her. Sassiness is a quality in a woman that is often looked at contemptuously- here, we see themes of womanhood and empowerment as Angelou challenges that notion and implies that it is a quality to be proud of. She asks the oppressors whether they are full of gloom “’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells; Pumping in my living room.” This indicates that she walks with the confidence of someone who is extremely rich and set for life. Oil and petroleum were known as ‘liquid gold’ at the time, hence the connection between oil wells and richness.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 9-12
“Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.”
Angelou once again reiterates that she will rise. Last time, she likened her rise to dust. This time, she likens it to moons and suns, which rise every night and morning respectively, as well as the tides, which spring high. The importance of these three specific elements is that there is surety in their rise. It is impossible for the sun not to rise in the morning- and it is with that same certainty that Angelou stands tall. She also compares her rise to rising hopes. This signifies that not only is she standing her ground in the present, she sees light in her future. There is a difference between one who lives hopelessly day by day and one who walks forward with belief in their future.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 13-16
“Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?”
Here, the readers get an idea of what the oppressors want, or expect- they want to crush Angelou’s soul, and they want her to submit to them. “Bowed head and lowered eyes?” signifies submission and defeat, while “Shoulders falling down like teardrops, ; Weakened by my soulful cries?” implies emotional pain and distress. However, by listing this out and asking the oppressors whether this is what they had hoped for, Angelou comes out on top. She is not giving them what they want- instead, she is rising above it and using their own desires to mock them.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 17-20
“Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.”
Like sassiness, haughtiness is also considered “unbecoming” of women. Angelou once again questions an unjust stereotype through her words. She also asks them again whether they are frustrated to see her “laugh like I’ve got gold mines ; Diggin’ in my own backyard”. While in the previous stanza, the focus was on her confidence, here it is centered around her joy. She shows them that despite the struggles she faces, she is still able to laugh freely and be happy. Though the oppressors take away her rights, they cannot take away her confidence or her smile.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 21-24
“You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.”
In this stanza, Angelou uses figurative speech to compare the oppressors’ words and gestures with weaponry or sharp, harmful objects. She likens their words to bullets and their gaze to blades, emphasizing just how harmful and hateful their speech can be and the pain it could inflict on a person’s emotional being. She is firm that even if they try to kill her with their hate, she will rise like the air.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 25-28
“Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?”
This is the last time she asks them a rhetorical question. Women were expected to behave timidly and conservatively. Angelou demands to know whether the oppressors were upset by her sexiness. Though readers might see this as her rebelliousness, she is actually touching upon the fact that every woman should be able to proudly express themselves and their nature without any stereotypes or oppressive labels. She asks them whether they are surprised to see her “dance like I’ve got diamonds ; At the meeting of my thighs?” which implies that by this point, they shouldn’t be.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines, 29- 34
“Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.”
In this stanza, she repeats “I rise” twice, building up the grand yet calm ending. “Out of the huts of history’s shame” signifies the shame and torment they have gone through and how it is misconstrued in history. Angelou vows to rise above that barrier. Her and her community’s past is rooted in pain, meaning it is almost unable to escape it. But she will rise above it. The line “I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide, ; Welling and swelling I bear in the tide” represents two elements. One is that of her race and identity- she is black and proud of it, hence the term “black ocean.” She describes herself as the ocean because of its vast endlessness. She, too, leaps ahead like the tides do. She “bears the tide“, meaning she bears the pain and swells from it, using it as a motive to rise above.
Still I Rise | Analysis, Lines 35 -43
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
The last stanza contains the most repetitions of the refrain. The reason for this is to conclude the poem with emphasis on Angelou’s main message, as well as to create a powerful, impactful ending. Angelou talks about leaving behind the “nights of terror and fear”, which also serve as a confirmation of the pain she has gone through. Walking forth, she will enter the wondrously clear daybreak, which symbolises hope, fresh starts and new beginnings. She brings the gifts from her ancestors- more than literal objects, Angelou refers to love, wisdom and experience. It is the courage her ancestors displayed in their struggles and the dignity they carried themselves with for her to see that she carries close to her heart. These are the gifts that will help her through the difficult times. Angelou hopes to become a symbol of hope for the black community, who had been ruthlessly enslaved. She wants them to see her and find a direction to dream in, to realize that there is still light at the end of the tunnel.