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Maya Angelou's Still I Rise: Poem Analysis

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Feb 10, 2021 4:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Maya Angelou is one of the most important literary figures in twentieth century American history. Her poetry is often included on reading lists for high school English courses, and it may even make an appearance on the AP Literature exam.

In this article, we’ll give you a full introduction to Angelou and her engaging poetry so that you’ll be equipped to analyze it all on your own. To do this, we’re going to guide you through a close analysis of one of Angelou’s most famous poems, “Still I Rise.”

To help you learn what Angelou’s “Still I Rise” poem is all about, we’ll cover the following in this article: 

  • A brief intro to the poet, Maya Angelou
  • “Still I Rise” poem background
  • The overarching meaning of “Still I Rise” 
  • The top three themes in the poem
  • The top two poetic devices in the poem

Are you ready to dive in? Then let’s go!

 


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Maya Angelou, speaking at Wake Forest University, in 2008. (Kingofthedead/Wikimedia)

 

Meet the Poet, Maya Angelou

In order to fully understand the meaning of a poem, it’s important to start by looking at the life of the poet who wrote it. Why? Because poets sometimes reference their own life experiences, relationships, and personal identities in their works. In this instance, we’re going to look at the life of Maya Angelou, the poet who wrote the poem, “Still I Rise.”

Maya Angelou, whose given name was Marguerite Annie Johnson, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on April 4, 1928. Her father, Bailey Johnson, was a doorman and navy dietician, and her mother, Vivian Johnson, was a nurse and card dealer.

Growing up, Angelou’s home life was chaotic and sometimes emotionally distressing. Angelou’s parents divorced when she was three, and her home life became unstable. In the years following, Angelou and her brother were shuffled from place to place, including their grandmother’s home in Stamps, Arkansas. 

After returning to St. Louis at age eight, Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman. Angelou told her brother, who told the rest of the family, and Freeman was arrested and charged. He was only held in jail for one day, but he was murdered shortly after his release. Some scholars think Angelou’s uncles were responsible, seeking revenge for what Freeman had done to Angelou. 

After Freeman’s murder, Angelou returned to live with her grandmother in Arkansas and spent five years virtually mute. It wasn’t until a teacher and family friend, Mrs. Bertha Flowers, took an interest in Angelou that she was able to find her voice again. 

Flowers introduced Angelou to authors such as William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe, as well as Black female artists such as Frances Harper and Jessie Fauset. Years later, Angelou stated that she could no longer speak because she believed that her voice had killed Freeman. She felt that Freeman’s murder was proof that her words had the power to kill. Nevertheless, it was during this difficult period of her life that Angelou’s interest in poetry and writing began to take root. During this time, she also graduated high school and had her son, Clyde, at the age of seventeen. 

Angelou married her first husband, Enistasious Tosh Angelou, in 1951. Around this time, she began pursuing art more seriously. After her marriage ended in 1954, Angelou began dancing professionally at clubs in San Francisco. Her managers at the Purple Onion, a night club, suggested she formally adopt the name, “Maya Angelou,” which she did. 

In 1959, Angelou moved to New York City to concentrate on her writing career. She joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met several other African American authors and began publishing her work. In 1960, she met civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. After hearing him speak, Angelou began volunteering to benefit the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and taking a stand as a political activist. 

Angelou’s professional writing career took off when she and her son moved abroad in 1962. She worked as an editor at a newspaper in Cairo, Egypt, and wrote for various publications in Ghana as well. Angelou also met and began working with human rights activist Malcolm X during her years in Africa. When she returned to the United States in 1964, Angelou helped Malcolm X set up the Organization of Afro-American Unity. The organization disbanded when Malcolm X was assassinated the next year. 

Angelou pursued writing more intensely in the years after traveling broadly, witnessing the need for human and civil rights, and processing the assassination of her fellow activists and friends, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Throughout the 1970s, Angelou experienced her most productive writing period, writing articles, short stories, TV scripts, documentaries, autobiographies, and poetry. 

Arguably, Angelou’s most famous work is her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, published in 1969. But Angelou’s poetry is also highly acclaimed. Both her autobiography and her poetry explore the complexities of her childhood growing up in Missouri and Arkansas, racial discrimination, sexual assault, and womanhood. These works also emphasize the power of storytelling and the spoken word—two themes that find root in her childhood experiences as well. 

Up until her death on May 28, 2014, Angelou continued to write, teach, give lectures and poetry readings, and participate in political campaigning. She even directed a feature film! Angelou was a prolific artist whose work evokes powerful images of what being a Black child, woman, and artist was like in twentieth century America. 

 

 

Want to hear Maya Angelou recite "Still I Rise" herself? Just click on the video above!

 

Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” Poem

“Still I Rise” was originally published in the 1978 poetry collection, And Still I Rise by Maya Angelou. “Still I Rise” is the volume’s title poem and plays a crucial role in developing the collection’s key themes. It is also one of the most famous and widely read poems from this collection by Maya Angelou

Before we can dig into what the meaning of “Still I Rise” is, we need to actually read the poem. Take a look at the full text of “Still I Rise” below.

 

“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou

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.

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.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

 

 

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"Still I Rise" was written to address the discrimination that Black people face due to systemic racism in the United States. 

 

The Background Behind the “Still I Rise” Poem

One way that we can discern the meaning and themes of a poem is by looking at its background, including experiences in the poet’s life and broader historical events that may have influenced the poet. Still I Rise” was written to portray the resilience of Black people in response to racial discrimination and injustice. 

“Still I Rise” was written during the 1970s, when Angelou became involved in the civil and human rights movements, engaged in political activism, and traveled abroad to Africa. These experiences likely gave Angelou an intimate look at many forms of discrimination around the world. 

Angelou also met and worked with some of the most inspiring leaders of the civil and human rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s. This means that, while Angelou witnessed injustice, she also got to see the resilient spirit of Black people united in action. These experiences with racism and resistance influenced Angelou’s writing during the 1970s and shaped the themes in many of her poems, including “Still I Rise.” 

On top of these influences, Angelou also had a traumatizing childhood, which included her own personal experience with racial discrimination and sexual abuse. For Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” and other poems are an outlet for processing that personal pain and finding ways to rise above the wounds individual people and society inflicted upon her. 

 

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Now it's time to do a little investigation and figure out what Maya Angelou's poem is actually about! 

 

“Still I Rise”: Meaning and Themes

Now, let’s dig into the meaning of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. Go ahead and reread the poem one more time so that it’s fresh in your mind as we talk about the “Still I Rise” poem’s meaning and themes. 

 

“Still I Rise” Poem Meaning

The central meaning of “Still I Rise” can be summed up like this: despite America’s violent and discriminatory treatment of Black people, Black resilience is an unstoppable force and a beacon of hope. 

The poem’s title, “Still I Rise,” suggests that the poem’s speaker is rising up despite or in response to challenging circumstances. As the poem develops, we learn that the speaker rises up in response to American society’s hatred and oppression of Black people. 

The speaker of the poem is Black, which we learn in these two lines in the last stanza: 

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

The speaker’s reference of slavery and ancestors situates them in a very specific cultural and racial role as a Black person. 

Additionally, we see how this Blackness rises up in opposition of hate, discrimination, and oppression throughout the poem. For example, in the second stanza, the poem’s speaker asks the reader:

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 fourth and fifth stanzas pose questions to the reader in a similar fashion, asking:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

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.

Angelou opens each of these stanzas with questions as she calls out everyone who has participated in the oppression of Black people. She demands an explanation for their hatred, and each question calls out a specific instance of or type of mistreatment. Speaking on behalf of Black people who have experienced discrimination, the speaker questions why Black people are treated with violence and contempt. 

As the poem goes on, it becomes clear that those who hate Black people do so because of the strength, beauty, and resilience of Black people...even though the Black community remains oppressed. We see this in the similes that compare the spirit of Black people to resources that are an endless wellspring of riches, like “oil wells / Pumping in [the speaker’s] living room” and “gold mines / Diggin’ in [her] own backyard.” Using these comparisons, Angelou asks the reader to consider why it’s the enduring hope, joy, and strength of Black people  that makes others want to break them down.

While the strength and beauty of Black people incites hatred and intolerance, Angelou also portrays these qualities as the ultimate source of Black people’s strength to keep rising back up. The speaker argues that Black people refuse to give up in the face of society’s racism and oppression. Instead, they respond with remarkable strength. 

Now, let’s take a closer look at the three major themes that define Angelou’s poem: the relationship between personal and collective experience, the irrationality of racial hatred, and the enduring nature of Black resilience. 

 

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Angelou not only talks about the ways in which Black people collectively experience racism, she is asking readers to examine their role in perpetuating racism, too.

 

Theme 1: The Relationship Between Personal and Collective Experience

The first theme we’ll discuss that’s important to understanding Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” is the relationship between personal and collective experience. 

First, there are two major characters in “Still I Rise”: the Black speaker of the poem, and the person to whom they’re asking their questions (the “you”/addressee). 

Let’s look at the poem’s addressee. Throughout “Still I Rise,” the poem’s speaker addresses an unknown “you.” At first glance, it may seem like this “you” could be anyone, but as we get deeper into the poem, it becomes clear that Angelou is addressing a specific type of person: anyone who despises or hurts Black people because of their racial identity. 

So, though it sounds like the speaker is addressing an individual when she says “you,” she’s actually referring to a group of like-minded people: all those individuals who participate in racial discrimination. When you read “you” in the poem, that’s who should come to mind. In that way, Angelou targets a collective experience of racism and racist behavior as the main topic of her poem. 

But we can also break down the identity of the poem’s “you” a bit more. We could also read Angelou’s use of “you” as her way of asking all readers to look inside themselves to see if they’re complicit in racism, too. 

In other words, Angelou could be asking us to examine ourselves for hidden biases: do we experience any of the negative feelings toward Black people that the “you” portrayed in the poem experiences? And if we do, do we want to be included in that hateful “you?” By addressing the reader as potentially being a part of that “you,” Angelou gives us an opportunity to reflect on their internalized biases and reject harmful ones that we may not have realized we were harboring. 

In that way, Angelou draws a strong connection between collective actions and our individual responsibility. It’s easy to write off a group of people as “racist,” but we have to remember that group is made up of individual people. And more importantly, “Still I Rise” argues that it’s our responsibility to make sure our own individual ideas, beliefs, and actions aren’t feeding a system that harms others. 

The poem’s speaker also exhibits the relationship between our individual selves and collective experiences. Throughout the poem, the speaker refers to themselves in the first person, often using “I” and “my” to refer to their experiences with racial discrimination.

But in the first and last stanzas of the poem, Angelou’s speaker indicates that their experiences are common and shared among Black people. The speaker does this by referring to the role of history in documenting both the oppression of Black people and their response to this oppression. 

Throughout the poem, the speaker’s individual experiences tie into the collective experiences of Black people. As the speaker “rises” from each individual attempt to break her or push her down, so do Black people as a whole. This is on display in the following stanza: 

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 final stanza of the poem, the speaker reveals that their resilience, and that of their people, comes from a shared and enduring collective experience. When the speaker refers to “the gifts that my ancestors gave,” they’re talking about how the strength of past Black people continues to undergird the Black community in the present. This is the historical narrative that truly defines who she is—not the bitter, twisted lies of their oppressors. 

So in this case, the speaker’s individual decision to rise in the face of discrimination contributes to Black people’s collective experience in the face of racism. And more importantly, her individual actions will help future generations continue to rise up and above as well.

 

Theme 2: The Irrationality of Racism

Another important theme that Angelou portrays in “Still I Rise” is the irrationality of racism. Angelou conveys this theme through rhetorical questions that demonstrate that the reasons people cite for hating Black people are trivial. 

The “you” who is addressed by the poem’s speaker is portrayed as being upset and offended because the speaker is sassy, hopeful, haughty, and sexy. Those seem like weird things to hate someone for, right? And you certainly wouldn’t oppress someone just because they exhibit those qualities! 

That’s exactly Angelou’s point in this poem. She’s showing that hatred and fear of Black people is irrational. The “bitter, twisted lies” that came to define America’s understanding of Black people since the early days of the country’s existence didn’t make sense then, and “Still I Rise” argues that they don’t make sense now. The poem reiterates that the lies that paint Black people as dangerous or “less than” others are baseless and untrue. 

Instead, the speaker rewrites the story of who they are in order to rise up against the hateful “you” that they’re addressing in the poem. By revealing the truth of who she is—sassy, sexy, human—she challenges the historical lies that support racist ideas. By asking the “you” if they are offended and upset because of who she truly is, Angelou’s speaker exposes the irrationality of the hatred directed toward Black people. 

 

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Theme 3: The Enduring Nature of Black Resilience

A final central theme that characterizes “Still I Rise” is the enduring nature of Black resilience. Throughout the poem, the speaker portrays the nature of their resilience through comparisons to things that are known for their toughness or ability to endure. Ultimately, these comparisons between the resilience of the speaker and durable things symbolizes the resilient spirit of Black people in general. 

Angelou’s speaker characterizes their resilience as being similar to things from the natural world that endure through the weathering down that occurs as time passes. For instance, Angelou tells the poem’s “you” that, while they may be trodden into “the very dirt,” like “dust” they’ll rise again. And just like the moon, sun, and the tides of the ocean—all of which fall and rise—the speaker will continue to rise as well. 

Angelou makes these comparisons to portray the speaker’s resilience in a specific way. Like the “certainty” of the patterns of the sun and moon,  the speaker’s resilience is certain. It won’t fade away or diminish; it will endure. The speaker is ensuring the poem’s “you” that no matter what hateful things they say or do, the speaker will rise up no matter what. 

The references to human activities like pumping oil and mining gold work also the importance and value of resilience. 

The speaker says they walk like they’ve got oil wells pumping in her living room, and laughs like they’ve got gold mines in their backyard. Of course, the poem’s speaker doesn’t actually have oil wells and gold mines. Instead, the speaker makes these comparisons to show their resilient spirit is more valuable than oil and more precious than gold. 

Ultimately, the poem’s speaker is recognizing that the poem’s “you” can’t comprehend the value of the speaker’s resilience, nor can they diminish the driving force behind the speaker’s resilient spirit. 

 

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The Top 2 Poetic Devices in “Still I Rise”

Poetic devices are literary devices that poets use to enhance and create a poem’s structure, tone, rhythm, and meaning. In Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise,” Angelou uses repetition and rhetorical questions to reinforce her poem’s meaning

 

Poetic Device 1: Repetition

Repetition is often used in poetry to solidify a key idea or theme. Similar to the refrain of a song, repetition can also be used to create a particular rhythmic effect and set a poem’s mood. In “Still I Rise,” Angelou’s speaker repeats the refrain, “Still I rise” and, “I rise” to convey the power of Black resilience and set a triumphant tone

The repetition of “Still I rise” and “I rise” set up a stark contrast between the hateful actions of the poem’s “you” and the resilient response of the poem’s speaker. Angelou describes how the poem’s “you” attempts to keep the speaker down. The “you” addressed by the speaker may “trod [them] in the very dirt,” “shoot [them] with your words,” and “cut [them] with your eyes.” These actions are all designed to break the spirit of the speaker. But in response to each of these attempts to oppress them, the speaker repeats the phrase, “I rise.” 

So whereas the hatred portrayed in the poem is dirty and low, the speaker’s resistance rises high above these kinds of exchanges. Rather than responding with hatred, the speaker walks, laughs, and dances, rejecting the lies of those who would oppress them. 

The repetition of the phrase, “I rise” is also symbolic: it conveys the ongoing resilience of the spirit of Black people in response to ongoing racism and discrimination. With each repetition of “I rise,” the reader gets a sense of just how strong and resilient the speaker is. This repetition emphasizes the speaker’s message that attempts to keep Black people down will never be successful. As the poem’s eighth stanza says, the resilience of Black people is like the ocean: 

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 other words, “rising up” is not something that the speaker and, by extension, Black people, do only once. Because racial oppression also endures, Black people find themselves rising up again and again. 

 

Poetic Device 2: Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions are the other main poetic device that Angelou uses to convey the “Still I Rise” meaning. Rhetorical questions are questions that a writer poses in order to make the reader come up with their own answer--and think more deeply about complicated issues in the processes. Writers often use rhetorical questions to guide readers toward answers that reinforce the poem’s message. 

In “Still I Rise,” rhetorical questions appear at the beginning of four of the stanzas. Each rhetorical question in this poem is addressed to the poem’s “you.” Each question asks about the ways in which the speaker offends the addressee. This technique allows Angelou to investigate why the addressee hates the speaker...which also allows her to shine a light on the flimsy reasons behind racism as well.

The repetition of these rhetorical questions sets a tone that feels more like an interrogation than a conversation—and this is intentional. Each rhetorical question directed toward the hateful “you” in the poem serves to condemn their hatefulness, especially when Angelou’s speaker begins answering the questions herself. 

Additionally, the speaker answers the rhetorical questions for the reader in order to help readers see the insubstantial motivations behind their hatred of Black people. Take the question and answer sequence in the poem’s fifth stanza for example: 

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.

The stanza above begins with a rhetorical question directed at the reader about haughtiness. But Angelou’s speaker also answers the question themselves, revealing that they already know the “you” in the poem is offended by her haughtiness. 

Ultimately, Angelou uses rhetorical questions to ask the collective “you” addressed in the poem to reflect on their own hatefulness and intolerance. By answering these questions with declarative statements throughout the poem, Angelou is signaling to the poem’s “you” that Black people aren’t confused about where this hatred comes from. They understand that Black people’s refusal to give up in the face of ongoing lies and cut downs only makes those who are filled with hate even angrier. 

In fact, these rhetorical questions, piled up one after the other in the poem, convey an attitude of defiance. They prompt the poem’s “you” to essentially ask themselves, “Did you really think your hatred could keep us down?” Nevertheless, by stating the violence against Black people with each rhetorical question and communicating a resilient response to each cut down in her answers, Angelou emphasizes just how strong Black people are.

 

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What's Next?

Analyzing poetry can be tricky, so it’s helpful to read a few expert analyses. We have a bunch on our blog that you can read through, like this one about Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” or this article that explains 10 different sonnets!  

It’s much easier to analyze poetry when you have the right tools to do it! Don’t miss our in-depth guides to poetic devices like assonance, iambic pentameter, and allusion.

If you’re more about writing poetry than analyzing it, we’ve got you covered! Here are five great tips for writing poetry (and a few scholarships for budding poets, too). 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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