Still I Rise Summary

"Still I Rise" is a poem by Maya Angelou in which the speaker addresses and dismisses the efforts of her oppressors to prevent her from achieving her full potential.

  • The speaker notes that her oppressors will "lie" in the history books in an effort to degrade her and her fellow Black people.
  • As the poem progresses, the speaker asserts that she is confident in her worth, and taunts her oppressors for being intimidated by her confidence.
  • The speaker describes herself as "the hope of the slave," echoing the strength and resilience of Black people throughout history, who have and will continue to "rise."

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043

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“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 real problems for anyone who would seek to control it and suppress it.

This would be a less effective poem if its tone were entirely angry and bitter. Instead, the speaker injects plenty of sarcastic humor into the work, beginning in stanza 2, especially with the extravagantly playful references to “oil wells” in her “living room” (7–8). It is as if the speaker, although having suffered from oppression, still possesses enough self-respect to mock and tease her oppressors. It is as if, despite their power, she doesn’t take them entirely seriously. Confident and self-assured, she can ridicule them in exaggeratedly humorous ways. She belittles them through her wit as they have belittled her and her people by much cruder methods. The speaker’s cleverness shows that her own mind is free, just as she seeks to free the minds of other Blacks, partly through her own “sassiness” (5). The poem is full of witty taunting. It cleverly degrades those who have earlier degraded Blacks. In lines 9–10, the speaker implies that her rising is natural, inevitable, irresistible, unstoppable. Nothing the oppressors can do can now prevent her and her people from rising. Like the rise of suns and moons, their freedom will bring a kind of light into darkness.

The days of sadness for Blacks have now passed (13–16), not because they are suddenly and improbably immune from sadness but because they refuse to give their oppressors the satisfaction of seeing them sad. The speaker’s tone now becomes almost condescending and pitying: “Don't you take it awful hard” (18). The sympathy here is mock sympathy. It is as if the speaker intends to let her oppressors know how it feels to be treated with the supercilious disdain she and her people have felt. The tables are now turned: the speaker looks down on her oppressors rather than the other way around.

Yet the poem is interesting not simply for its tones but for its structure. It is full of intriguing echoes and contrasts. Thus, the reference to “sassiness” in line 5 is both echoed and made darker by the reference to the stronger, sharper “haughtiness” in line 17. Likewise, lines 21 through 24 recall the poem’s first four lines, but now the verbs are much more menacing than before: “write” (1) is replaced by “shoot” (21), while “trod” (3) is replaced by “cut” and “kill” (22–23). Similarly, the opening reference to dust rising (4) is now replaced by a reference to the even more inevitable and unstoppable rising of air (24). In these stanzas and in others, then, the speaker shows her talent for recalling, transforming, and strengthening what she has already said.

Such echoes and transformations also help make the poem seem something more than simply an outburst of emotion. Instead, it seems an expression of passion that is clearly under the speaker’s sometimes angry, sometimes playful control. Thus she echoes “sassiness” (5) in “sexiness” (25), uses alliteration with good humor throughout the work (as in “dance like I’ve got diamonds” [27]), and is even playfully erotic (as in the reference to the “meeting of [her] thighs” [28]). This is a speaker who at least makes it appear (despite the pain that she has clearly felt) that she cannot have her resilience and optimism suppressed or destroyed.

Yet her good spirits are not rooted simply in personal self-confidence. Rather, and especially near the end of the poem, she pays open tribute to her ancestors, who experienced much worse oppression than she has suffered (29–32, 39–40). The poem ultimately becomes an implied accolade or homage to their courage and to their inspiring example. Thus, although the word I is mentioned frequently throughout this poem, and although it is especially strongly stressed as the poem concludes, in the final analysis, this poem is not a work dealing with the ego of the speaker but with the heritage of her ancestors and also with the prospects of the contemporaries for whom she speaks.

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