Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Maya Angelou and a Summary of 'Still I Rise'
'Still I Rise' is an empowering poem about the struggle to overcome prejudice and injustice. It is one of Maya Angelou's most famous and popular poems. When read by victims of wrongdoing, the poem becomes a kind of anthem, a beacon of hope for the oppressed and downtrodden.
It is a reminder of the abuses of power by those who sit in government, the judiciary, the military, and the police force. For members of the public, it sends out a clear, repeated message of hope. No matter the circumstances, there must always be hope to cling to.
'Still I Rise'
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.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Analysis of the Poem
This stirring poem is packed full of figurative language. It functions 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. (It's little wonder that Nelson Mandela read this poem at his inauguration in 1994 after spending 27 years in prison.)
Although written with black slavery and civil rights issues in mind, 'Still I Rise' is universal in its appeal. Any innocent individual, any minority, or any nation subject to oppression or abuse can understand its underlying theme—don't give in to torture, bullying, humiliation, and injustice.
This poem includes 43 lines in total, made up of seven quatrains and two end stanzas which help reinforce the theme of individual hope, with the phrase 'I rise' repeated like a mantra.
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 repeat until 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. The natural imagery is far-reaching and the voice is loud. In this poem, there are moons and suns, tides and black oceans. There is a 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' conveys the speaker's self-confidence, backed up by the use of 'haughtiness' and 'sexiness'. The poet's use of hyperbole adds a kind of absurd beauty when she says,
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 six brings the oppressive issue to a climax. Three lines begin with 'You,' the speaker, choosing particularly active verbs—'shoot,' 'cut,' and 'kill' —to emphasize the aggression. But this aggression comes 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, this is an inspirational poem with a powerful repetitive energy, a universal message, and a clear, positive pulse throughout.
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What's the Theme of the Poem?
'Still I Rise' is primarily about self-respect and confidence. In the poem, Angelou reveals how she will overcome anything through her self-esteem. She shows how nothing can get her down. She will rise to any occasion, and nothing, not even her skin color, will hold her back.
Although slavery had been long abolished, Angelou saw its effects on society and the African American people. This poem is her declaration that she, for one, would not allow the hatefulness of society to determine her own success.
This poem is not only a proclamation of her own determination to rise above society but was also a call to others to live above the society in which they were brought up. It is still one of the most widely read poems in America.
What Topics Can the Poem Teach Students?
Students respond to poems in many different and exciting ways. This poem will inspire and spark debate on topics such as:
- Societal Issues
- Individual Rights
- Peaceful Protest
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. Since it was published in 1978, her poem 'Still I Rise' has been one of the most widely read poems in the United States.
How Was She 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, she 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
"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"
"Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie"
"Gather Together In My Name"
"And Still I Rise"
"Shaker, Why Don't You Sing?"
"On the Pulse of Morning"
"Life Doesn't Frighten Me"
"Hallelujah! The Welcome Table"
"Mom & Me & Mom"
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, more than 30 healthcare and medical facilities are named after Angelou. In fact, she was awarded more than 50 honorary degrees.
Timeline of Maya Angelou's Life
April 4, 1928
Born in St. Louis, Missouri.
Dropped out of school to become San Francisco’s first African-American female car conductor.
1954 through 1955
Toured Europe with a production of the opera "Porgy and Bess."
Recorded her first album, "Calypso Lady."
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."
Moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she served as editor of the English language weekly The Arab Observer.
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.
Returned to America to help Malcolm X build his new organization of African American Unity.
Published "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," also received the Chubb Fellowship from Yale University. Angelou has received over 50 honorary degrees.
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.
Appeared in the television adaptation of Alex Haley’s "Roots."
Joined the faculty at Wake Forest University as a Professor of American Studies.
Appeared in John Singleton’s Poetic Justice. Won Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Album for “On the Pulse of Morning.”
Won Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Album for “Phenomenal Woman.”
Directed her first feature film, "Down in the Delta".
Awarded the Presidential Medal of arts.
Won Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album with “A Song Flung Up to Heaven.”
Composed poetry for and narrated the award-winning documentary "The Black Candle," directed by M.K. Asante. Also awarded the Lincoln Medal.
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 passed away in her Winston Salem, North Carolina, home.
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'?
Angelou's most popular poem 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.
- "Maya Angelou." SwissEduc.com. December 17, 2013. Retrieved October 7, 2019.
- Ferrer, Anne. "Angelou's optimism overcame hardships." The Star Phoenix. May 29, 2014. Retrieved October 8, 2019.
- McGrath, Kim. "Remembering Dr. Maya Angelou." News Center. Wake Forest University. June 2, 2014. Retrieved October 7, 2019.
- "Maya Angelou," Teaching Tolerance, www.tolerance.org. 2010. Retrieved October 7, 2019.
- "Maya Angelou," www.thestoryweb.com. 2016. Retrieved October 22, 2019.
© 2016 Andrew Spacey