How is irony used in Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise"?

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There are three kinds of irony found in literature, the first of which is essentially sarcasm, or verbal irony, when someone says the opposite of what they mean. The second is dramatic irony, which usually occurs when the audience is aware of something important to the plot, but a character is not. The third type is situational irony, when what is happening is the opposite of what one might expect.

In this poem, we can find situational irony in the discrepancy between how society wants the speaker to act and how she actually acts. While society might tell "twisted lies" about the speaker—a black woman —the speaker, far from being downtrodden, is determined to "rise" instead. Her metaphorical upward motion is the opposite of the expected capitulation. The speaker uses "sassiness" to "upset" those who would see her "broken" and behaves instead as if she has her own "oil wells," "diamonds" and "gold mines"—symbolic of wealth.

The speaker's behavior, then, is that of a positive, upbeat person who is sure of her own worth, which is ironic because those around her would rather "shoot" and "cut" her down to size.

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In literature, there are three types of irony: verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony. Verbal irony occurs when the writer’s words are different from their intended meaning—this usually takes the form of sarcasm. Dramatic irony takes place when the reader has more information than a character does. Neither of these types of irony are present in Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” However, we do see the poet employ situational irony in this piece.

Situational irony occurs when the reader expects one thing to happen but something else happens instead. In the case of “Still I Rise,” the speaker of the poem is shattering the expectations of not only the reader but also society. Despite all the negative things that have happened to her, she is determined to thrive. The opening stanza captures the essence of the poem:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Angelou employs situational irony by making the speaker of her poem defy people’s expectations of someone who has undergone so much hardship.

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This poem was written by a black woman in 1978. Certainly, racism is still a factor for persons of color even in 2018, so one can imagine the racism a person of color would have to face forty years ago. Black Americans endured slavery, broken promises made to them once they were freed from bondage, as well as systemic racism in so many aspects of American culture and government since then. There were, and still are, many people who believe that Black Americans are worth less than whites, or have a number of negative qualities that are somehow inherent in their race. This poem takes those racist notions and turns them on their head. Though white America may "write [the narrator] down in history / With . . . bitter, twisted lies . . . , still, like dust, [the narrator] will rise." She will not walk with her head down; she will walk as though she's worth billions of dollars. She will not be broken or subdued or made to feel ashamed. She knows her value, and she is empowered by this knowledge. Thus, the irony here is situational. One might expect a black woman in 1978 to keep her head down, to keep a low profile, or to fail to value herself highly, but this woman defies those expectations by owning her power and her sexuality.

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The irony at the root of "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou is a situational one. Situational irony is defined as when the opposite of what is expected occurs.

The speaker suggests that the nameless adversaries who try to break her will never be successful because she will always overcome. Society may try to "shoot [her] with...words," "cut [her]" with judgment, and "kill [her] with...hatefulness,” but the speaker will emerge triumphant. The repetition of the phrase "still I rise" throughout the poem shows that the speaker’s perseverance allows her to overcome even the most insurmountable of obstacles.

This is situational irony in a way because society expects the speaker to be destroyed mentally, emotionally, and physically. Despite these expectations, the speaker asserts her imperviousness to society’s destructive efforts.

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