Analysis of the Poem "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou

Updated on September 18, 2019
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Learn what makes "Still I Rise" one of the most important poems in American history.
Learn what makes "Still I Rise" one of the most important poems in American history. | Source

Maya Angelou Still I Rise

Still I Rise is a powerful, empowering poem all about the struggle to overcome prejudice and injustice. It is one of Maya Angelou's most popular poems.

When read by those who understand the meaning of repeated wrongdoing, the poem becomes a kind of anthem, a beacon of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden.

It is a reminder of the abuse of power by those who sit in government, the judiciary, in the military and in the police force. For members of the public, for society, it sends out the clear, repeated message of hope. No matter the circumstances, there must always be hope to cling on to.

Analysis of Still I Rise

This stirring poem is packed full of figurative language and when read through comes over as a sort of secular hymn to the oppressed and abused. The message is loud and clear—no matter the cruelty, regardless of method and circumstance, the victim will rise up, the slave will overcome adversity.

Little wonder that Nelson Mandela read this poem at his inauguration in 1994, having spent 27 years in prison.

Although written with the black slavery and civil rights issues in mind, Still I Rise is universal in its appeal. Any innocent individual, any minority, any nation subject to oppression or abuse could understand the underlying theme - don't give in to torture, bullying, humiliation and injustice.

There are 43 lines in total made up of seven quatrains and two end stanzas which help reinforce the theme of individual hope, "I rise" being repeated in mantra fashion.

This is a poem aimed at the oppressor. Note the first "You" in the first line and the rhyme scheme abcb, which tightly knits the stanza together. It's worth going through the rhyme's effect because the full rhymes such as eyes/cries, hard/backyard, surprise/thighs continue up to the last two stanzas when the scheme changes from abcb to abcc and aabb, giving an absolute solid ending to the piece.

If this poem were a sculpture it would have a granite plinth to stand on. And the natural imagery is far reaching and the voice loud. There are moons and suns, tides and black ocean; there's clear daybreak and ancestral gifts, all joining together in a crescendo of hope.

Similes and metaphor abound. Every stanza has at least one, from the first ..."But still, like dust, I'll rise." to the last..."I am the dream and the hope of the slave."

There's a defiance in the poem as you read through, as if the speaker is trying to prick the conscience of the oppressor, by reminding them of past wrongs and present realities. The word sassiness suggests an arrogant self-confidence, backed up by the use of haughtiness, and sexiness. The poet's use of hyperbole with these three nouns adds a kind of absurd beauty.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as some surprise

That I dance like I've got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Stanza 6 brings the oppressive issue to a climax so to speak. Three lines begin with "You," the speaker choosing particularly active verbs—shoot, cut, kill—to emphasise the aggression. But all to no avail for the oppressed will still rise, this time like air, an element which you cannot shoot, cut or kill.

All in all, an inspirational poem with powerful repetitive energy, a universal message and a clear, positive pulse throughout.

What Topics Can the Poem Still I Rise Teach Students?

  • Politics
  • History
  • Trade
  • Oppression
  • Societal Issues
  • Individual Rights
  • Slavery
  • Peaceful Protest

Students respond to poems in many different and exciting ways. This poem will inspire and spark off many a debate on such themes as:

More Famous Poems by Maya Angelou

Poem
Year Published
"Woman Work"
1978
"When I Think About Myself"
1971
"Touched by an Angel"
1995
"Africa"
1975
"Alone"
1975
"A Brave and Startling Truth"
1995
"Caged Bird"
1983
"Phenomenal Woman"
1978
"On the Pulse of Morning"
1993

FAQ About Maya Angelou

What Was She Best Known For?

Marguerite Annie Johnson Angelou, commonly known as Maya Angelou, was an American author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet, and civil rights activist. She is best known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The book made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African-American woman.

How Was Maya Angelou Influential?

Maya Angelou was an award-winning author, poet, civil rights activist, college professor, and screenwriter. Her literary works were an important part of the civil rights movement. She was also an inspiration to female writers and African-American writers around the globe. Angelou was among the most influential woman of her time.

What Did She Believe In?

When she was in her 20s, Dr. Maya Angelou discovered the Unity Church. Unity is a Christian movement that was founded in 1889. It emphasizes affirmative prayer and education as a path to spirituality. Though she was Christian, Angelou was accepting of all faiths and spiritualities.

Great Books by Maya Angelou

Book
Release Year
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"
1969
"And Still I Rise"
1978
"On the Pulse of Morning"
1993
"Gather Together In My Name"
1974
"Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie"
1971
"Life Doesn't Frighten Me"
1993
"Mom & Me & Mom"
2013
"Hallelujah! The Welcome Table"
2004
"Phenomenal Woman"
1995
"Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?"
1983

What Was the Cause of Her Death?

Maya Angelou died on the morning of May 28, 2014. She was found by her nurse. Although Angelou had reportedly been in poor health, she was still working on another book (an autobiography about her experiences with national and world leaders).

Angelou's agent said that she had been suffering from heart problems, which was likely the cause of her death. Angelou's legacy is twofold. She leaves behind a body of important artistic work that influenced several generations. The 86-year-old was praised by those who knew her as a truly inspirational person. She was a woman who pushed for justice, education, and equality.

What Award Did President Obama Give Maya Angelou?

In 2010, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the U.S., by President Barack Obama. Today, there are more than thirty healthcare and medical facilities named after Angelou. In fact, she was awarded more than fifty honorary degrees.

Timeline of Maya Angelou's Life

Date
Event
April 4, 1928
Maya Angelou is born in St. Louis, Missouri.
1942
Angelou dropped out of school to become San Francisco’s first African-American female car conductor.
1954 through 1955
Angelou toured Europe with a production of the opera "Porgy and Bess."
1957
Recorded her first album, "Calypso Lady."
1958
Angelou moved to New York, where she joined the Harlem Writers Guild. She acted in Jean Genet’s Off-Broadway production, "The Blacks," and performed "Cabaret for Freedom."
1960
Angelo moved to Cairo, Egypt where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer.
1961
She moved to Ghana, where she taught at the University of Ghana’s School of Music and Drama. She worked as a feature editor for The African Review and wrote for The Ghanaian Times.
1964
Returned to America to help Malcolm X build his new organization of African American Unity.
1970
Published "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," also received the Chubb Fellowship from Yale University. Angelou has received over 50 honorary degrees.
1972
Film "Georgia, Georgia" came out. Angelou wrote the screenplay and composed the score. Her script was the first ever written by an African American woman to be filmed, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
1977
Appeared in the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s "Roots."
1982
Joined the faculty at Wake Forest University as a Professor of American Studies.
1993
Appeared in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. Won Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Or Non-Musical Album for “On the Pulse of Morning.”
1995
Won Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Or Non-Musical Album for “Phenomenal Woman.”
1996
Directed her first feature film, Down in the Delta.
2000
Awarded the Presidential Medal of arts.
2002
Won Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album with “A Song Flung Up To Heaven.”
2008
Composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary The Black Candle, directed by M.K. Asante. Also awarded the Lincoln Medal.
2011
Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama at the White House.
May 23, 2014
Angelou sent her last tweet: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
May 28, 2014
Maya Angelou passes away in her Winston Salem home.

More About Her Life

What Was Her Greatest Achievement?

Maya Angelou is widely known for her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which was published in 1969. The book uses events from Angelou's life to touch upon the subjects of sexual exploitation, identity crisis, and the literacy of women in a male-dominated society.

Why Did She Write "Still I Rise"?

In Angelou's most popular poem, "Still I Rise," she refers to the indomitable spirit of Black people. Despite adversity and racism, Angelou expresses her faith that she, the speaker, and the whole of the Black people will overcome their hardships and triumph.

What Did Maya Angelou Do for the Civil Rights Movement?

The fifth volume of her autobiography, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes (which was published in 1986), delves deep into her years spent in Ghana, where she began to discover her heritage as an African American woman. Maya Angelou was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s and her poems became inspirations for Black youth.

Sources

© 2016 Andrew Spacey

Comments

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  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    21 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Yes, a poem that touches the personal by being universal. Thanks for the visit and comment Audrey.

  • vocalcoach profile image

    Audrey Hunt 

    22 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

    "Still I Rise" absolutely does have universal appeal. As I read each line, followed by the inspiring video, I couldn't help but reflect on my own life. The challenges, losses, and pain, each one tugging at my heart. But I refuse to be a victim...I choose victorious.

    Magnificent and powerful. Thank you Andrew.

    Audrey

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    22 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Many thanks for the comment, most welcome. This poem has a universal appeal and should perhaps be pinned to the wall in all schools and work places. Created out of the blood/spirit of a wonderful person.

  • kiddiecreations profile image

    Nicole K 

    22 months ago

    I love this poem. Your analysis is right on target. I feel like this poem could apply to lots of people and situations. It could be used in a situation where someone is being bullied, or suffering from domestic violence, or even just spiritual attacks. But of course it has great significance to the African American community. Beautiful and powerful poem.

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