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Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" is a poem about strength and endurance, and about affirmation. It is about what is expected of a person like the speaker (in terms of controlling her), and what that person is capable of doing despite expectations.
Said of the poet:
Angelou early experienced the twin forces that would determine the shape of her life and the nature of her career: personal rejection and institutional racism.
In "Still I Rise," themes of rejection and racism can be seen. For example, the first stanza may well reflect the concept of slavery, seen with the word "history."
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.
The first line suggests that the telling of the history of slaves in America has long be controlled by whites who decided what was recorded in books and what was true as they saw it, but never spoke of the reality of slave life—forced to leave their homes and be treated like property...as if they were no longer people. However, Angelou's theme of perseverance is also present with the use of the word "dust." Dust has often been referred to as "abiding"—something that lasts forever. "Abiding" is defined as...
...continuing without change; enduring; steadfast...
Making this comparison, Angelou affirms that regardless of the abuse the speaker suffers (and the speaker can be seen to represent all blacks), that she will rise: she will not disappear, she will not be defeated and she will not be held back.
The second stanza continues with the same tone...the speaker asks if she has upset her listener by not acting as the listener wants her act—subdued, repressed, sad, etc.
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
The speaker notes that she refuses to be downtrodden, and while the listener may be expecting her to be broken, she walks as if she the world's wealth is in her pockets. Her strength and defiance are clear. The images she provides speak of oppression and violence:
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
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.
In light of violence and even death, we now hear the essence of the speaker's spirit entering into the poem: for not even death will destroy the speaker's presence, as if it has grown so strong that it will defy the very limits of the passing from this earth.
Angelou's poem promises that nothing will destroy her will, and here we have an even greater sense of the promise of the survival of the race—the rising is like the air: it is everywhere and cannot be contained. The last section of the poem speaks directly of the path from slavery to the modern day: reciting life in huts and a past "rooted in pain." This race has achieved power as great as the mighty oceans that cannot be contained. Angelou speaks of her ancestors: their pain, their work, their sacrifice—and their legacy.
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
This line provides closure to this age-old battle. This is a poem of challenge to those who wish to place a person of color into the limited confines of the past, and a declaration of freedom—after a very long journey—bringing the black race to freedom and dignity: at last.
Here is a video of the poem being read by Maya Angelou herself:
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