The writer addresses "you" several times in the poem. Who is meant by "you," and how can we tell?

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Maya Angelou is speaking on behalf of all African-Americans in this poem, addressing the white people who have subjugated African-Americans in innumerable ways since they came to this county as slaves.  The poem recounts the damage done, the response of white people who are offended by any African-American insistence on being treated as equals, and the ways in which the African-American will triumph in spite of it all. Let's look at a few passages from the poem to show this.

First, Angelou says this:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt...(lines 1-3)

In fact, this is a fair description of how African-Americans have been and in some instances are still treated. Some states have insisted, for example, in changing history textbooks so as to minimize the horror and impact of slavery.   

She also says,

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness... (lines 21-23)

In fact, African-Americans have been literally shot, cut, and killed, not just in the days of slavery and Jim Crow, but also in America now. So this poem is not mere rhetoric. 

The second point she makes is that she is an African-American female with pride who sees that her pride offends white people, who persist in the belief that she should stay in her proper place, beneath that of white people.  Here is one example:

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells

Pumping in my living room (lines 3-8).

In other words, anyone who acts as though she is entitled to be treated as a regular person is considered to be "sassy" and disrespectful.

But the nearly constant refrain through the poem is "Still I'll rise" (12), which is varied slightly from one stanza to the next.  Angelou is saying to white people that no matter what they do to her, she will continue to rise and insist upon her dignity, her value, and her equality.