Maya Angelou’s works often focused on the experience of being a black woman in America. She had to live through some of the worst oppression and inequality for African American people. Although slavery had been long abolished, Angelou saw its effects prevail in society. In this context, Still I Rise becomes more than a call for strength in the face of hardship. It’s also a modern-day ode to the power and beauty of blackness. The poem is an assertion of the dignity and resilience of marginalized people in the face of oppression. She declares that she, for one, would not allow the hatefulness of society to determine her success.
Still I Rise presents the bold defiance of the speaker, implied to be a black woman, in the face of oppression. This oppressor, addressed throughout as you, is full of bitter, twisted lies and hatefulness toward the speaker, and hopes to see the speaker broken in both body and spirit. However, despite all the methods of the oppressor to shoot, cut, or kill her, the speaker remains defiant by continuing to rise in triumph. The poem takes the reader through a series of statements the speaker makes about herself. She praises her strength, her body, and her ability to rise up and away from her personal and historical past. There is nothing, the speaker declares, that can hold her back. She is going to rise above and beyond anything that seeks to control her.
Society relentlessly tries to humiliate and demean the speaker, who has little power to fight back. The speaker acknowledges that society may enact violence upon her. It also can write lies about the speaker and present them as facts. The speaker cannot prevent any of this, and the attempts to harm the speaker only escalate as the poem continues. This you may crush the speaker into the dirt; it may shoot, cut, and eventually even kill the speaker with hatefulness. An oppressive society presents a clear and pressing danger to the speaker’s body and mind.
Yet the speaker responds to this treatment not only by surviving but by thriving -something that provokes anger from her oppressor. The speaker wonders why the oppressor is so upset, offended, and gloomy. Perhaps, she proposes, it is because of her confident walk, generous laughter, or dazzling dance. The speaker presents her joy -her refusal to bend to the speaker’s will -as an act of defiance. All of her acts are associated with traditional signs of wealth in the form of oil, gold, and diamonds.
Regardless of the oppressor’s negative and hateful responses, the speaker continues to prosper. The speaker even explicitly rejects the oppressor’s desire to see broken. The oppressor wants to elicit lowered eyes, teardrops, and soulful cries from the speaker, to see her downtrodden. Thus simply living with joy, pride, and a dignity is an act of resistance against and triumph over oppression.
Indeed, the speaker rise repeatedly over the oppressor’s violent hatred and prejudice. The speaker’s rise is first compared to the rise of dust, a reference to the earth. Later, her rise transforms from the rise of dust to air, which is located physically above the earth. The progression of these comparisons throughout the poem reinforces the speaker’s rise over oppression. And just like the rise of moons and suns, the speaker’s rise is inevitable and unstoppable. Her dignity and strength are qualities that society can’t touch, no matter how hard it tries. The speaker is thus able to ascend out of history’s shame and a past that’s rooted in pain, both of which are particular references to slavery, by living with pride and joy. Indeed, her rise is the ultimate dream and hope of oppressed people.
The speaker thus doesn’t assert her strength despite her blackness, but rather insists that her strength comes from her identity as a black person. And by subverting readers’ expectations of an ode and who or what it should praise, Angelou challenges the assumed white gaze of her readership. Humanity, power, and beauty, Angelou declares, are abundant in blackness and black womanhood. The poem has a clear and particular resonance for African Americans. More broadly, the poem is a ringing assertion of the dignity of marginalized people and an insistence on their ultimate, inevitable triumph over violence and hate.
Within Still I Rise, Angelou takes a strong and determined tone throughout her writing. By addressing her’s, and all marginalized communities’ strengths, pasts, and futures head-on, she’s able to create a very similar mood. A reader should walk away from Still I Rise feeling inspired, joyful, and reinvigorated with courage and strength.