What symbols are in the poem "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou?

In "Still I Rise," Maya Angelou uses gold mines and oil wells as symbols of wealth and confidence. She also uses natural imagery, including the sun, the moon, the tides, and the air, to symbolize the inevitability of her continued rise beyond the reach of oppression.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are multiple symbols in this poem which contribute to its central meaning. The speaker describes herself as "dust," which she contrasts to the "dirt" into which her detractors would like to crush and bury her name and accomplishments. While dust and dirt may be superficially the same, the distinction is that dust will "rise," just as the speaker intends to do.

There are also various symbols of wealth and industry in the poem, as the speaker describes her vast resources of inner strength, beauty, and power. She describes her walk as being like that of someone who has "oil wells" in her living room. Later, she suggests that there are "gold mines" in her backyard: both of these things symbolize natural resources which can be plundered to make the owner incredibly wealthy.

It is important that both gold and oil are naturally occurring, as this connects to other symbols in the poem which emphasize the natural strength and power of the speaker. She rises like "air" and swells like a "black ocean." The tidal nature of the ocean is like the nature of the speaker's strength. It is notable, too, that the ocean is black, as the speaker is describing the particular plight of Black women, who have been treated so cruelly by history and by society. The speaker notes that, like diamonds, gold, and oil, the strength and power of Black women has been there all along, but now she is able to tap into those resources and "rise" like air.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The speaker uses symbols of wealth to describe herself: gold, oil, and diamonds. These are all precious items that come from the earth. In all three cases, they are extracted from within the earth: they rise up out of the dirt. This symbolizes the idea that though once downtrodden, the female Black speaker now rises from the earth.

Beneath what has been considered dirt can lie a diamond in the rough or the gleam of gold. This symbolizes the worth that the speaker now acknowledges in herself, as she has found her inner treasure. Like a diamond, she has been forged by pressure and pain; like oil or a "black ocean," she swells upward.

Rising is another important symbol. The Black woman has been buried, her value unsuspected, but now she is rising, as if being resurrected from a grave. There is a strong symbolic resonance here with Christ's triumphal rising or ascension to heaven in the Christian story depicting his suffering, torture, and death. Three is also an important biblical symbol, and the speaker repeats the words "I rise" three times at the end of the poem, as if to emphasize her connection with the Christian trinity.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The speaker in "Still I Rise" uses various symbols of wealth to indicate the value of her body. First, she explains that despite attempts to tear her down with "lies"; she walks like she owns "oil wells." Oil is a natural resource which modern society values; property containing an oil reserve is quite valuable. Later, she explains that an unnamed listener wants to see her "broken," yet she laughs like she owns "gold mines." Again, the speaker points to an incredibly valuable natural resource to indicate her own sense of self-worth. Finally, she acknowledges that the listener wants to "kill" her "with ... hatefulness," yet she dances like she has "diamonds" between her thighs. Once again, she points to a precious and prized natural resource to explain her own feelings of worth.

It is important to note that as references to her body become more intimate, from her walk to her laugh to her thighs, the value of the symbol, as determined by the society who uses these resources, also increases. This indicates the precious value of the speaker's body, which is particularly important as the poem references a Black body; the speaker is the "dream and the hope of the slave."

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the first stanza of "Still I Rise," Maya Angelou uses the dirt on the ground to symbolize the downtrodden and unvalued members of society, only to counter this with the symbol of dust, which rises from the ground when trodden underfoot. The rest of the poem is filled with contrasting symbols of prosperity and oppression.

The pumping oil wells to which the speaker refers in the next stanza are a symbol of wealth and self sufficiency, and the same is true of the gold mines in her backyard in stanza five. The diamonds between her thighs at the end of the seventh stanza add sexual confidence to this combination. The moon, the sun, and the tides in the third stanza act as symbols of the certainty and inexorability of her rise, comparing it to a law of nature. Later, in stanza six, the same symbolism is applied to air.

There are also symbols of the oppression that the speaker has surmounted and continues to overcome. Bowed shoulders are described as falling like teardrops, symbolizing misery and defeat. The huts in which her people used to live symbolize "history's shame." At length, she becomes the free, independent person that her ancestors dreamed of being, symbolized by a "black ocean," an unstoppable and uncontrollable natural force.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial