How can I compare the way the poets present feelings of empowerment or oppression in "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou and "The Slave's Dream" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

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The two poems present two completely different tones and experiences which draw from the experience of slavery. In a comparison essay, I might begin with a thesis something like this:

Although the speaker in "The Slave's Dream" reflects the deep injustices of slavery shown through a third-person narrator, the first person voice in "Still I Rise" encourages those impacted by slavery and racism to draw strength from the history of their ancestors.

In your question, you focus on two key words: empowerment and oppression. Angelou's poem definitely has a tone of empowerment. She uses words like "rise," "tides," and "hopes" to convey her unwavering perseverance. The repetition of "still I'll rise" throughout the poem and five times in the final stanza alone heightens the reader's sense of the speaker's strength. When she faces situations entrenched in racism where she is expected to bow her head or lower her eyes, she knows the history that guides her:

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

The speaker's ancestors have gifted her with strength through their experiences. She is their dream. She is their hope. She can rise.

On the other hand, the speaker in "The Slave's Dream" describes the experience of a slave who suffers no such sense of empowerment. He lies with matted hair, half buried in the sand, his only hope of a reunification with the family he loves being provided to him in visions as he dies. The driver's whip beats him as his soul leaves the earth, but he cannot even feel the pain as his body is merely "a worn out fetter." The slave has been oppressed until he can physically no longer take the torture.

Both of these are experiences and voices worth hearing. Slavery in America was oppressive, and the descendants of slaves can draw strength from the stories and experiences of those who paved the road to freedom which they themselves never saw. There is both significance in honoring the experience of those oppressed ancestors and in becoming all that they dreamed of. The hope that burned within the dying slave in "The Slave's Dream" is the same hope that helps the speaker in "Still I Rise" overcome adversity.

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The speaker of "Still I Rise" speaks from a place of personal empowerment, but the slave in "The Slave's Dream" can only experience such empowerment in his dreams. It is notable, I think, that the speaker of Angelou's poem is a black woman who speaks for herself; she is a first-person narrator. However, the speaker of Longfellow's poem is a third-person speaker who is describing the enslaved man and his dream of freedom. In one poem, the black person speaks for herself; in the other, he is spoken of by another. This difference in point of view is one way in which the authors represent the relative empowerment or oppression experienced by the woman and the enslaved man.

Further, the speaker in Angelou's poem expresses confidence and empowerment in the present. She says that she walks "like [she's] got oil wells / Pumping in [her] living room" and laughs "like [she's] got gold mines / Diggin' in [her] own backyard." She feels self-assured and well aware of her power and beauty and value in the world. She is fearless—unafraid to be haughty or sassy.

However, the slave in Longfellow's poem can only dream of the empowerment he experienced in the past, in his home. He revels in the remembrance of his family, his country, the power of his body, a power that he lacks now. In fact, the speaker compares that body to a "worn-out fetter" that has been broken and tossed away by his soul (in death). The body is a source of pride for the speaker in Angelou's poem but a hindrance for the enslaved man in Longfellow's.

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You have the opportunity to draw some striking conclusions about the similarities and differences in the two poems.

Personally (as a writer and a teacher), I would prefer a bold thesis statement in favor of Ms. Angelou’s powerful voice drowning out Longfellow’s lyrical attempt to imagine an oppressed slave’s dreams.

To address the assignment guidelines:

  • Language: Both poets rely heavily on personification and metaphor to describe the beauty and power of freedom. The poets use oceanic imagery to draw analogies between the strength of the oppressed spirit and the overwhelming power of the ocean.
  • Structure: Both poems conclude with images of empowered spirits rising above physical oppression. Longfellow presents his couplets in a third-person omniscient narrative while Angelou writes in the first person and addresses “you” (her oppressors) throughout. This seems to make Angelou’s poem a powerful personal account when compared to Longfellow’s distance from his protagonist.
  • Themes: Both poems offer beautifully crafted accounts about how the spirit can never be imprisoned even when the body is oppressed. However, Angelou’s first two lines diminish Longfellow’s knowledge about a slave’s true dreams. While it is doubtful that Longfellow’s work is full of “bitter twisted lies,” Angelou’s personal account seems to overpower Longfellow’s attempt to find hope in his protagonist’s death. She claims her voice as her own, her body as her own, and uses striking imagery to ensure “you” will know that her message is in the very air “you” breathe. Longfellow’s message that freedom is a “dream” is overshadowed by Angelou’s assertion that her empowerment is very much real.
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