Maya Angelou, born in 1928, lived through some of the worst oppression and inequality for African American people. Although slavery had been long abolished, Angelou saw its effects on society and the African American people. ‘Still I Rise’ is her declaration that she, for one, would not allow the hatefulness of society to determine her own success.
The poem, ‘Still I Rise,’ is not only a proclamation of her own determination to rise above society, but was also a call to others to live above the society in which they were brought up.
Explore Still I Rise
The poem takes the reader through a series of statements the speaker makes about herself. She praises her strength, her body, and her ability to rise up and away from her personal and historical past. There is nothing, the speaker declares, that can hold her back. She is going to “rise” above and beyond anything that seeks to control her.
Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ can be read in full here.
Structure and Form
‘Still I Rise’ is a nine stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The first seven stanzas contain four lines, known as quatrains, stanzas eight has six lines and the ninth has nine. The first seven stanzas follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, the eighth: ABABCC and the ninth: ABABCCBBB.
Tone and Mood
Within ‘Still I Rise’ Angelou takes a strong and determined tone throughout her writing. By addressing her’s, and all marginalized communities’ strengths, pasts, and futures head-on, she’s able to create a very similar mood. A reader should walk away from ‘Still Rise’ feeling inspired, joyful, and reinvigorated with courage and strength.
Poetic Techniques and Figurative Language
Angelou makes use of several poetic techniques and different kinds of figurative language in ‘Still I Rise’. These include anaphora, alliteration, enjambment, and similes. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. In this piece, a reader should look to stanza six for an example. Here, Angelou uses the phrase “You may” at the start of lines one through three.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, ” huts of history” in line one of the eighth stanza and “gifts” and “gave” in stanza nine.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and two and three of the second stanza.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. In the third stanza of ‘Still I Rise’ with the line “Just like hopes springing high” or in lines three and four of the fifth stanza: “’Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines / Diggin’ in my own backyard”.
The major themes of this work are self-empowerment, perseverance, and injustice. Throughout the text, the speaker, who is commonly considered to be Angelou herself, addresses her own oppressor. The “you” she refers to represents the varieties of injustices that people of colour, women, and all marginalized communities have dealt with as long as history has been recorded.
She throws a prior self-derogatory way of thinking to the side and addresses herself lovingly and proudly. The poet seeks to empower herself, as well as all those who have doubted their abilities, strength, beauty, intelligence or worth. This is seen through lines like “You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise”.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
You may write me down in historyWith your bitter, twisted lies,You may trod me in the very dirtBut still, like dust, I’ll rise.
In this stanza, Maya Angelou gives her heart and soul to declare that nothing and no one could oppress her or keep her down. She doesn’t care what the history books saw, for she knows they are full of “twisted lies.” She will not let it bother her that others “trod” her “in the very dirt.” She proclaims that if she is trodden in the dirt, she will rise like dust.
Does my sassiness upset you?(…)Pumping in my living room.
In the second stanza, she asks a question. This is an interesting question, as she refers to her own tone as “sassiness” and asks the hearer if her sassy tone is upsetting. The poet notices that the people around her in her society are “beset with gloom” when she succeeds. She questions this. She knows that she is succeeded in life, in her writing, and as a woman. The “oil wells pumping in [her] living room” symbolize her success.
Just like moons and like suns,(…)Still I’ll rise.
In this stanza, she compares herself to the moon and the sun as they are affected by the tides. This gives the reader the understanding that the speaker has no other choice but to rise up out of her affliction. Try as a society might to keep her oppressed, it is in her nature to rise up and stand against oppression just as it is the nature of the tides to respond to the moon.
Did you want to see me broken?(…)Weakened by my soulful cries?
The speaker’s questions in this stanza are direct, pertinent, and appropriately accusing. She knows that her own success is received with bitterness by the racist people in her society. So she directs these questions at a society that has long tried to keep her oppressed. She asks them if they want to see her broken, oppressed, depressed, and bitter.
She asks these questions know that this indeed is what many in society wanted. They did not want to see a black woman rise up out of the oppression of her society and succeed. The speaker knows this and she draws attention to it with this revealing, yet cutting questions.
Does my haughtiness offend you?(…)Diggin’ in my own backyard.
She continues with the questions directed at a racist society when she asks whether her “haughtiness” is offensive. She knows that society resents seeing a black woman full of pride. This question has an air of sarcasm which serves to point out the hypocrisy of society as it is embittered by the success of one that it has tried to oppress. The speaker continues is a sarcastic tone as she pretends to comfort the hearer.
The poet says, “don’t you take it awful hard.” This is her sarcastic way of pretending to care for those who resent her success. She continues, however, to in a sense “flaunt” her success before the society that has always oppressed her. She claims that she has “gold mines” and that she laughs at the success she has found.
You may shoot me with your words,(…)But still, like air, I’ll rise.
In this stanza, she lets society know that no matter what it does to oppress her, it will not succeed. The poet lets society know that it cannot prevail against her with words or looks. She proclaims that society cannot prevail against her even if it managed to have her killed because of its hatefulness. She claims that she will still “like air” rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?(…)At the meeting of my thighs?
The speaker continues her questioning of society. By this time in the poem, it becomes apparent that the speaker has placed society on trial and is now in the process of cross-examination. She knows the answers to these questions, but to ask them is to incriminate the offender. While she asks incriminating questions, she simultaneously reveals incredible self-confidence despite the oppression of society.
Out of the huts of history’s shameI rise(…)I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
In this stanza, the speaker finally refers to the past- the reason that she is oppressed and resented to this day. She calls slavery “history’s shame” and she proclaims that she will not be held down by the past, even if it is “rooted in pain.”
Leaving behind nights of terror and fearI riseInto a daybreak that’s wondrously clearI riseBringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,I am the dream and the hope of the slave.I riseI riseI rise.
In the final stanza, the speaker reveals that she intends to leave behind all the effects of slavery and the history of oppression with intent to rise above it. She claims that she will leave behind the “terror and fear” and that she will rise above the pain and the oppression “into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear.”
The speaker does not intend to allow the hatefulness of society or the pain of the past to stop her from becoming all that she ever dreamed of being. For this reason, she repeats three times, “I rise.”
Maya Angelou is best known for her empowering poems that seek to celebrate the female body and mind, specifically dedicated to Black women.