What is the theme of the poem "Still I Rise"?

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Strength in the face of tremendous hardship is one of the most important (and most universal) themes of Maya Angelou's poem "Still I Rise." This poem speaks to opression and suffering that black communities--and black women in particular--have experienced.

The poem moves from conveying this oppression on a larger scale ("You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies...") to a more intimate level ("Does my sexiness upset you? / Does it come as a surprise..."). When Angelou refers to "history's shame," she is remarking upon the American institution of slavery and the lasting pain that enslavement created in generations of black men and women. This is a terrible legacy that has been carried on through the continued racism of those who still wish to "shoot [her] with [their] words" and "cut [her] with [their] eyes."

Ultimately, the speaker of the poem defies white standards of beauty and the history of enslavement by operating as "the dream and the hope of the slave," and in doing so, rises above her circumstances and public opinion. This readiness to keep moving despite what has happened and will continue to happen is a mark of resilience and tremendous courage.

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This poem is about resilience and determination when facing oppression. This is a general theme but Angelou is also specifically talking about the historical oppression of African-Americans. In the poem, she shows a determination to resist being a victim of this oppression. No matter how she (the speaker) is portrayed in history books, she will "rise" (live, fight, resist). Even if she is forced to live a poor life, she will act as though she is rich ("oil wells"). She will "rise" with the certainty that the sun and moon both rise. 

She challenges those who would oppress or hold her down. Rather than acting defeated, with "bowed head and lowered eyes," she will laugh and even be haughty or sassy. This is in defiance of the oppressors. 

She ends the poem with

"I am the dream and the hope of the slave. / I rise / I rise / I rise."

Although no longer a slave, she still faces racism and oppression. Instead of wallowing in frustration resulting from this oppression, she endeavors to defy it and live a happy life. The penultimate stanza notes the difficult history her ancestors had to endure. She responds to that past with that same empowering refrain of rising. 

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. 

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