Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The major theme of “Steady Going Up” is the vulnerability of innocent black men to white violence. Maya Angelou wrote the story out of the consciousness that African American women feel toward the endangerment that black men face, suggesting what the men might do to bolster and protect their manhood. Angelou draws implicitly on a long history of white violence against black men, false accusations that black men lust after white women, and the white stereotyping of black sexuality. In having her young African American protagonist persevere and conquer the white racists who seek to harm him, she reverses the pattern of victimization inherent in decades of lynchings and racial violence.

The story is written in the African American reform tradition of uplift, with the title a version of the motto of the black women’s movement, Lifting As We Climb, meaning that each individual black person’s achievements and contributions help to lift the race as a whole and aid other African Americans in seizing opportunities historically denied to them.