An Analysis of Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’

‘Still I Rise’ is a poem by the African American poet, Maya Angelou, who lived between 1928 and 2014. The poem dramatises the perseverance and the unbeatable spirit of not only the African Americans, but also black people all around the world given their bleak history. The African Americans, it should be understood, came to America mostly as slaves taken from Africa from the 17th to 19th centuries. Apart from this, African Americans endured other historical persecutions even after the Emancipation Proclamation which brought an end to slavery in the January of 1863. They suffered the Jim Crow laws in the South in the 19th and the 20th centuries which enforced the physical separation between white and blacks in housing, work and education. They suffered the lynching of blacks by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 19th and 20th centuries, including deprivation, humiliation and oppression, among other crimes of historical proportion. When in 1978 the poem ‘Still I Rise’ was published, the African Americans had come a long way in their history as a people in America, but they were still fighting to free up some more legal spaces to allow them more rights and privileges in the American society.

The 1970s in African American history was the era following the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s and the 1960s when black consciousness was awakened and there were great marches to protest the bleak conditions of blacks and to demand more rights and privileges. Angelou must have written this poem not only to look back and appreciate the strides, determination and the perseverance of blacks over the last 400 years, but also to celebrate the hopes and the aspirations of African Americans in overcoming the contemporary challenges that faced them. From all indications, ‘Still I Rise’ is also a personal poem as it reflects the traumatic moments in Angelou’s own life right from childhood and how she was able to overcome them through determination and perseverance. Thus, the poem should be understood both at personal and collective levels.

Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ is organised in 9 stanzas, with the first seven stanzas being written in quatrains, while the last two stanzas have 6 and 9 lines, respectively.  The poem is written in free verse as it has no meter though we notice that the first seven stanzas have their rhyme schemes and some incidental metrical alignments. Perhaps, this is meant to illustrate the thematic harmony in the poem. The poem is also written mostly in end-stopped-lines, though there are instances of enjambment. The persona or the voice speaking in the poem is an African American female, perhaps Angelou herself, but she represents the entire black race, what they been through and what they stand for.

The first stanza of the poem reads: ‘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’. This stanza rhymes abcb and sets the tone for the whole poem by embodying the spirit of determination that has defined the body politic of the African Americans all through the years. The stanza also creates the you-versus-me dialectic whereby the ‘you’ refers to the oppressive white power in America while ‘me’ refers to the African Americans. The motif of history which forms the background to the poem is equally noted in the first stanza, as one would only appreciate the poem if one knows what the African Americans have gone through in their history. However, history is usually written by winners or victors in the battle of life. Hence, the first stanza hints at the misrepresentation of the African American person’s life, personality and culture in white narratives which are metanarratives that the poet tries to counter in the poem. Angelou refers to these metanarratives by white Americans as ‘bitter, twisted lies’ and goes on to say that despite being so represented, that is, being portrayed as dirty, inferior and unfit, she will not stay down, hence, ‘. . .still, like dust, I’ll rise’. The word ‘bitter’ suggests that the white portrayal of blacks is borne out of anger and hatred, specifically, racial hatred. The expression ‘twisted lies’ refers to the history of blacks written by white racist writers which is ‘twisted’ in the sense that it is a deliberate distortion of the truth. Notice the caesura in the form of a comma that separates the ‘bitter’ from ‘twisted’ in the second line of the first stanza as it gives poetic emphasis to the two words. The major imagery in the stanza is kinetic imagery seen in words like ‘write’, ‘trod’ and ‘rise’. The words ‘dirt’ and ‘dust’ constitute visual imagery, where ‘dirt’ forms a metaphor about how blacks are depicted in the history written by white or racist intellectuals. Though the African Americans are trodden to dust, they also rise like dust. Thus, there is an implied paradox or irony in this stanza. The stanza also has a simile which is a major poetic device deployed in the poem.

The second stanza of the poem reads: ‘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’. The major poetic device in this stanza is rhetorical question, a question asked for its poetic effects and not necessarily to elicit a response. The stanza has the rhyme scheme abcb and in it the persona wonders at the racial hatred directed at the African Americans, trying to guess the reasons for it. The word ‘sassiness’ defines a kind of imprudence mixed with racial pride often associated with African Americans especially in how they resist racial hatred and overcome all the burdens of racism in the American society to the pain and anger of their oppressors. The stanza speaks to the unconquerable spirit of the African Americans that defies racism in all its forms throughout the ages. This air of resistance is even observed in the walking steps of the African Americans who held their heads high even though they were counted as the inferior and poor in their American existential spaces. There is the use of a syncopated word in ‘Cause’ in the third line of the second stanza with the syncope indicating the elision of ‘be’ from ‘because’. This allows the line to have the same number of syllabus as the first line of the stanza – both have eight syllables, while the second and the fourth lines have seven syllables. The syncopation of ‘because’ in the poem is also consistent with the African American dialect and explains its repetition in stanza five of the poem. The expression ‘oil wells’ is a symbol of wealth in the modern world economy and also constitutes a hyperbole in the poem since the ownership of oil wells was mostly a national or corporational preserve due to white society and not for blacks. There is the use of simile in the third line of the second stanza as well as a plethora imagery.

The third stanza of the poem reads: ‘Just like moons and like suns,/With the certainty of tides,/Just like hopes springing high,/Still I’ll rise’. The rhyme scheme of this stanza is aaba. The dominant poetic devices in this stanza are simile, metaphor and refrain. The persona compares her ability to rise from racial and other existential challenges to the rhythmic rising of the elements like the moon and the sun, objects in nature whose season cannot be impeded. The expression ‘certainty of tides’ is metaphoric and speaks to the inevitability of African American’s triumph at the appointed time. Both the ebb tide and the full tide have their assigned moments which cannot be stopped. This is a lesson in the poem; there is a time to fail and surely there is a time to succeed. The third line shows that the hope of freedom has always kept the dreams of the African Americans alive. The expression ‘Still I’ll rise’ which ends the stanza is a repetend that constitutes a refrain in the poem and reinforces the thematic thrust of the poem.

The fourth stanza of the poem reads: ‘Did you want to see me broken?/Bowed head and lowered eyes?/Shoulders falling down like teardrops,/Weakened by my soulful cries?’ This stanza rhymes abcb and discourses the conscious or unconscious wish by white society for African Americans to fail as a race and as a people. Perhaps, this explains all the traumatic events that they were made to go through. These issues are raised through the preponderance of rhetorical questions, symbols, simile and synecdoche, among other poetic tropes and imagery. The first line suggests that the will of the African Americans remains unbroken after centuries of systematic torture in the American society. The expressions ‘bowed heads’ and ‘lowered eyes’ symbolise postures of timidity, fear, shame and defeat which were expected to be the lots of blacks in America but which does not happen as the poem suggests. The third line has two poetic devices – synecdoche and simile, where the expression ‘shoulders falling down’ constitutes synecdoche while ‘like teardrops’ is a simile. The stanza should be understood by inverting or flipping the questions so that what is obtained as the character of the blacks in America is the opposite of what the questions state. For instance, the final line of the fourth stanza implies that the African Americans did not stay down crying over what the white society has meted out to them.

The fifth stanza of Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ reads: ‘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’. This stanza has the rhyme scheme abcb and takes the same structure as stanza two. The poetic devices or elements in this stanza are rhetorical question, syncopation, simile, imagery and personification. The word ‘haughtiness’ marks and defines the air of superiority carried by the African Americans who refused to be put down by centuries of racial oppression and hatred in the American society. This is because, through education, they now know their worth and place in history and cannot allow themselves to be belittled. Notice all the negative energy or vibes attributed to the silent oppressor in the poem, especially anger and bitterness as they take offence and feel awful about the continuous existence and thriving of the African Americans despite having been made to go through so much historical ordeal. The laughter noted in line three is suggestive of the happy spirit of blacks in America which is compared, through simile, to the happiness of someone who has gold mines, which in itself is a symbol of extreme wealth in the poem. The words ‘Cause’ and ‘Diggin’ are syncopated and are suggestive of the use of African American dialect in the poem. The expression ‘. . . gold mines/Diggin’ in my own backyard’ is a personification because it sounds like the gold mines are doing the ‘digging’ themselves.

The sixth stanza of the poem reads: ‘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’. This stanza rhymes aaaa. Again, this stanza demonstrates the defiance and the resistant attitude of the average African American in the face of racial attacks. Its tropes comprise an anaphora, a synecdoche, kinesthetic imagery and a refrain. The anaphora is seen in the repetition of ‘you may’ at the beginning of lines 1, 2 and 3. The word ‘eyes’ mentioned in line 2 is an instance of synecdoche, as it represents the person who does the cutting. Kinetic or kinesthetic imagery in this stanza is reflected in words like ‘shoot’, ‘cut’, ‘kill’ and ‘rise’. The refrain is seen in the final line of the stanza in the expression ‘I’ll rise’. The stanza raises the themes of trauma, verbal and psychological abuse.

The seventh stanza of the poem reads: ‘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?’ Deploying tropes like simile, rhetorical question, imagery and euphemism, the persona sustains the motif of trying to determine some of the traits in blacks that make them to be hated by white supremacists in the American society. The expression ‘sexiness’ speaks of the natural beauty of the African American womanhood, which is open, unapologetic and unafraid. The dance mentioned in the third line reminds us of Angelou’s dance prowess, which is a celebration of beauty and womanhood. This dance is free-spirited, full of happiness and contentment which explains why it is compared, through simile, to the dance of someone who has diamonds, another symbol of wealth in the poem. The expression ‘diamonds/At the meeting of my thighs’ is a euphemism and metaphor for the allure and richness of the African American woman’s sexuality. Indeed, one of the major themes of this poem is the strength and beauty of the African American womanhood.

The eighth stanza of the poem reads: ‘Out of the huts of history’s shame/I rise/Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/I rise/I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,/Welling and swelling I bear in the tide’. In this stanza, the persona mentions the dark history from which the African Americans have emerged stronger, better and with renewed hope and energy to face the future. The tropes deployed to discuss this idea are alliteration, the motif of history, metaphor, imagery, repetition and internal rhyme. Alliteration is seen in the words ‘huts’ and ‘history’ where the sound /h/ is repeated at the initial position of the words. It is also seen in line 3 in the words ‘past’ and ‘pain’ in which the voiceless bilabial plosive /p/ is repeated at the initial position. Metaphor is seen in the expression ‘I’m a black ocean’ in the fifth line. Words like ‘leaping’, ‘welling’ and ‘swelling’ are present participles that constitute kinetic imagery in the poem and they, together with the metaphor, speak of the existential possibilities and powers of the African Americans as their existence in the American society has brought a lot of positive developments for the country as seen in the expression ‘I bear in the tide’. The expression ‘I rise’ constitutes a repetition and a refrain in the poem.

The final stanza of the poem goes: ‘Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/I rise /Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/I rise/Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,/I am the dream and the hope of the slave./I rise/I rise/ I rise.’ In this last stanza that offers a fitting conclusion for the poem, it is seen that the African Americans have moved on with faith and hope, leaving behind a past full of pain and shame and looks to a future that promises greatness and joy. Yet in moving forward, the African Americans have not forgotten their ancestral roots embodied in their cultural values. This is what they take to arm themselves with as they face the future. ‘Nights of terror and fear’ is a metaphor for the bleak history of blacks in America while ‘a daybreak that’s wondrously clear’ signifies a bright tomorrow (future) for blacks in the America of the 1970s given the promise of the civil rights movements. The fifth line of the stanza speaks of the need for the blacks to arm themselves with their cultural values as they move into the future with hope. There is a metaphor in the expression ‘I am the dream and the hope of the slave’. This implies that though the forebears of the contemporary African Americans were slaves, the achievements of their children ensure that their labours and anguish were not in vain. The poem ends with anaphora seen in the emphatic repetition of ‘I rise’ three times, which is a significant count in African cosmology and epistemology.

In all, Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ is a poem that can be read at various levels. Primarily, it is a poem that recalls the oppressive history of blacks in America and how the blacks have responded with defiance, hope and resistance to such a history. The poem also celebrates the strength, beauty and the enduring spirit of the African American woman who does not only suffer on account of her gender, but also based on her race and class. Finally, the poem can be studied as a general resistance to any existential hurdles involving protagonists and their antagonists in any moment of life.  

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