“Still I Rise,” by the African American poet Maya Angelou (1928–2014), offers an intriguing mixture of tones: playful and defiant, comical and angry, self-assured and bitter. Ultimately, however, the poem’s tone, as the work’s title suggests, is triumphant.
The poem’s first word—“You”—is important. This is a poem clearly addressed to others. It is not simply a private, lyric meditation. Much of its energy derives from its bold and cheeky self-assertiveness. Clearly addressed to the white oppressors of black persons, the poem presents us with a black woman willing to speak up for herself, for other living blacks, and even for her black ancestors. The poem is both highly political and highly personal. The speaker is implicitly responding to decades and even centuries of oppression and mistreatment. Her tone, then, never sounds arrogant or cocky. Instead, most readers are likely to feel immense sympathy with her spirited rejection of further oppression.
It seems highly significant that the first kind of oppression the speaker mentions is an oppression rooted in writing:
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies . . . . (1-2)
The poem itself is a direct response to this kind of oppressive writing. The speaker transforms writing, one of the most important means of domination, into an instrument of liberation. The poem does not begin by emphasizing physical subjugation or literal violence. Instead, it begins by emphasizing the ways the wrong kinds of writing can imprison the minds of both oppressors and the oppressed. First and foremost, those who would help liberate blacks must first liberate their minds and challenge the thinking of their oppressors.
Only in line 3 do we reach the first reference to actual physical oppression (“You may trod me in the very dirt”), but the phrasing here seems more metaphorical than literal. Metaphorically, to tread another person into the dirt is to treat that person with enormous disrespect and almost shocking violence. Yet no sooner does the speaker imagine being abused in this way than she immediately responds, “But still, like dust, I’ll rise” (4). The reference to “dust” is variously effective. It implies that something normally seen as negative can instead be seen as positive. It implies that something normally seen as merely bothersome can actually possess a kind of resilience and strength. It implies that something normally considered easy to control can, simply because of its pervasiveness and volume, create...
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