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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

These two lines from stanza 1 capture the defiant tone of the poem. The speaker here refuses to be bowed by the oppressive weight of racism and insists that, “like dust,” she will always rise. The simile here, whereby the speaker compares herself to dust, might at first seem strange, given that dust generally connotes dirt and insignificance. However, the simile here is intended to be empowering. The speaker is saying that even the worst that can be done to her will not be enough to keep her down. The direct address in this quotation—and throughout the poem—emphasizes the boldness and the defiance of the speaker’s message. She speaks directly to her oppressors and refuses to be afraid of them.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Throughout the poem, the speaker repeatedly addresses the “you” in the poem with rhetorical questions, such as those in the above quotation. The implied responses to these questions are always that the speaker will not be “broken” and will not “bow” her eyes or “lower” her head. She will not break, she will walk with her head held high, and she will meet her oppressors head-on and look them in the eye. These repeated rhetorical questions compound the poem’s defiant tone.

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

In this quotation, the speaker metaphorically refers to herself as “a black ocean.” This metaphor implies that the speaker is elemental and strong, and also that the color of her skin is a strength and not, as racist people would have her believe, a weakness. The use of the verbs “leaping,” “welling,” and “swelling” also conveys the impression that the speaker is full of energy; furthermore, the repeated -ing suffix, denoting a continuous tense, implies that this energy is ongoing and relentless.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise

This quotation, taken from the final stanza of the poem, describes the transition that the speaker is determined to make. The metaphorical "nights of terror" refer to the worst days of racism that she is determined to leave behind. Those days are marked by violence, segregation, lynchings, and institutionalized discrimination. The “daybreak” that she sees ahead of her symbolizes the new life and the hope for a more peaceful, egalitarian society. In this stanza, the speaker also repeats a key phrase from the poem: “I rise.” Indeed, she repeats this phrase five times in the final stanza and ten times throughout the poem. This repetition emphasizes her point that she absolutely refuses to be beaten down and oppressed. She will, as she said in the first stanza, continue to rise “like dust.”

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