“Still I Rise” is a poem by Maya Angelou in her third volume of poetry with the same title, which was published in 1978 and focuses on the importance of hopeful determination to rise above difficulty and discouragement.
It is a powerful poem about the struggle to overcome prejudice and injustice, where the repetition of “I rise” in mantra style, to show that she is able to rise every time her oppressors try to knock her down. helps reinforce the theme of individual hope.
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.
The tone of the speaker in the first stanza is angry when she addresses the object of the poem, an unspecified “you”. As the poem continues, the “you” turns out to be an oppressor, namely a white oppressor. The speaker creates an indelible image of black people being “trod” in dirt, not just knocked down, but trampled on so as to be pressed, injured. However, no matter how much the oppressors try to crush the speaker and other black people, she will “rise” like dust.
She will essentially rise above oppression and defy her oppressors. Therefore, she is not only angry, but confident since she is channelling her rage to find a way out. She is challenging her oppressors and telling them boldly that they will not overcome her the way they used to oppress her ancestors: no matter what they try to do, she will resist.
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.
In the second stanza, the speaker questions if her “sassiness”, her bold attitude, upsets her oppressors. However, her tone is provocative and sarcastic rather than naive. She knows exactly why her oppressors are gloomy, she recognises the impact of her behaviour and personality, and is delighted by the fact that she bewilders them with her power and confidence.
Not only does she not care that her attitude upsets them, but she seems even amused by that. This is showed by the powerful last lines of the stanza underlying that her confidence and strength are pouring out of her like oil out of a well.
This is the first reference to a symbol for wealth. Comparing herself to someone who has “oil wells” pumping in her house, she is suggesting that she is rich and powerful, not in a monetary sense, but in spirit. And this gives her control over her life, just as a rich person with oil wells presumably has enough money to do what he or she pleases.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
In the third stanza there are celestial and natural references to suggest her resilience and determination to rise against all challenges. Her strength is as predictable, unstoppable and eternal as the “moons,” “suns,” and “tides.”
A hint at the movement towards equality, which is going to happen without taking into account the individual reactions against it: it is similar to a tidal wave that will not be stopped by any human effort, to the sun and the moon that will rise and set on their own, not according to the desires of man. The speaker emphasizes that the oppressors’ efforts to subdue her will be futile, while her success in rising above the pain is as certain as the cycles of nature.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
The fourth stanza portrays the characteristics of oppressed people who are described as “broken”. After their patience and resilience have been tested so often, they are emotionally and physically devastated. The “bowed head” and “lowered eyes” imply sadness, pain and even shame.
The image of their “shoulders falling down like teardrops” alludes to the collapse of both their body and their spirit. The stanza depicts a desperate person whose body is weakened by cries coming from a tortured soul.
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 back yard.
In the fifth stanza the speaker reverts to a confident and proud attitude and provokes the oppressor, using the word “offend”, which is an ironic choice, since it is the speaker who is the offended party.
The last two lines of this stanza, just as in the second stanza, once again portray the speaking voice as carefree and jubilant, as if she were wealthy. This time, her light-hearted laugh may suggest that she has gold mines in her own backyard: she may be oppressed, but her confidence is like gold.
Like the previous oil wells, the gold mines represent perpetual wealth, implying she does not possess just a fixed amount of wealth (courage, determination), since it is unlimited.
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, the speaking voice outlines different actions that her oppressors might take. They are vivid metaphors suggesting violent behaviour, conveyed through the ways in which a person might look at or speak to her, without any mention to a real knife or gun. Despite all of those actions, she will always rise, like air, because her spirit cannot be killed.
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?
The seventh stanza does not address race but it focuses on the power and confidence of the speaker as a woman. The provocative tone portrays her as a sensual creature: a free, dynamic female who dances as if she had “diamonds” between her thighs. The image of dancing suggests freedom and a carefree spirit, as well as beauty and sexuality. The speaker knows that she embodies these qualities and is aware of the oppressor’s surprise and discomfort at this revelation.
In this stanza there is the first open reference to the fact that the speaker is a woman, not an African-American person in the abstract, but specifically a sensual black woman.
Diamonds are the last reference to a symbol of wealth and power, but they may also represent beauty and even sexuality. The reference to the “diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” is the only overtly sexual reference in the poem.
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.
The eighth stanza is rich in imagery and does not interrogate the oppressor, but takes on a calmer tone that sounds like a prayer or a meditation.
The speaker refers to her struggles as an African American person and how she dealt with them. She found the energy and the faith needed to move forward in life, overcoming the agony she has been referring to throughout the poem.
The past “rooted in pain” suggests the abuses carried out and the sorrow caused by segregation.
She is now a “black ocean” of strength, alluding to her race and describing herself as a force of nature, full of power and might, able to withstand the tidal wave of her oppressors.
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.
In the final stanza, the speaker is taking a clear step forward, leaving behind the terrors of the past. She affirms her intention to rise above the past and fulfil the dreams and hopes of her ancestors. This stanza is also the first direct reference to the slavery of the past, hinted at earlier but never openly stated.
By calling herself the “dream and the hope of the slave,” she mentions slavery explicitly and places herself as the representative of those African-Americans who lived during racial segregation.
Her ancestors hoped for and dreamed of freedom, and she will “rise” above their pain and suffering and, through her fighting and perseverance, she will ensure that their struggles were not in vain.
The repetition of “I rise” in the last three lines is a bold declaration of hope and gives the stanza a great meditative quality, almost the image of slaves praying and singing songs.