What does the "black ocean" represent in "Still I Rise"?

Quick answer:

The "black ocean" represents both the speaker and the many Black women like her who were claiming their joy and power in 1970s America.

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In the eighth stanza, Angelou writes,

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
"Black ocean" is a metaphor, a comparison that does not use the words like or as. The speaker has been using a series of metaphors to express her joy and power in being a Black woman in 1970s America, where she and others like are choosing to assert themselves with triumph. Here, she is likening herself to an ocean that is energized and "wide." It is welling up like a wave and growing larger as it comes in to shore.

Angelou, like Walt Whitman in his Song of Myself, uses I as a pronoun that is at once individual and universal. The metaphor of the black ocean implies that she is speaking for growing numbers of Black woman everywhere who are rising up to claim their own joy and power. The "swelling" suggests that what the speaker is saying in bold and exuberant self-assertion is a feeling shared by many Black people.

The stanza containing the black-ocean metaphor begins with words about "history's shame" and the "past." In that context, it is difficult not to think of the Middle Passage, the ocean voyage in which Africans were taken against their will to America to be sold as slaves. By envisioning herself and others like her as the black ocean, the speaker is reclaiming and transcending that terrible event.

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