Self-empowerment in Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise

Topics: Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise exhibits her ability to triumph oppression in an era where disrupting what was expected behavior of African Americans was unheard of. This poem may have been influenced by her history of sexual assault at the age of 7, a time in her life where the pressure and judgment feared from others silenced her cries. As a woman of color she not only breaks through the weight of her hushed sorrows in Still I Rise but it is evident that she carries the hushed cries from her ancestors being oppressed by the white man as well.

Although her poem Still I Rise delivers an empowering message for the oppressed, it also reveals how the narrator found her voice in demonstrating resilience against racial and gender discrimination with her combined usage of purposeful dialect, repetition and metaphors. In her poem Still I Rise Maya Angelou poses a series of sarcasm filled questions to her audience, drawing them in while simultaneously targeting her oppressor.

Maya Angelou ties in her personal hardships she overcame with her questions shortly followed with defiance: “Does my sassiness upset you/ why are you beset with gloom?” (Stanza 2, line 1-2). In doing this, Angelou creates a conversation pinning the questions on the reader. Maya goes on to say that she has nothing but confidence and pride for who she is, “Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells/ Pumping in my living room” (Stanza 2, line 3-4). Her voice is defiant and triumphs her oppressors presumed thoughts of any doubt and hatred, highlighting that her oppressor is a guest in a woman’s traditional work space: the home.

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In stanza 3, by stating “Just like moons and suns, with certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high, Still I rise” (Lines 9-12) she is able to triumph her oppressors with a tone of certainty. As an African American woman, speaking out against your oppressor is historically “frowned” upon.

Maya is able to find her voice and breaks barriers with her usage of confident dialect following her call and response from her presumed oppressor in her audience. Maya’s desire for total ownership of her strength and resilience of standing back up when you are knocked down throughout hardships is further strengthened by her use of repetition of “I rise” in the eighth stanza. Maya is able to break through for her ancestors in line 1 when she says, “Out of the huts of history’s shame/ I rise/ Up from a past that’s rooted in pain/ I rise”. These huts that she is referring to were the living arrangements that slaves were forced to live in by their white slave owners. This living arrangement she is mentioning illustrates how her ancestors were oppressed yet she rises through the pain for her ancestor’s, deep pain that will never be forgotten.

The narrator incorporates first person with her history defying racism while simultaneously channeling her inner strength and finds value in woman she embodies. Moreover the narrator’s shift in repetition of “Still I Rise” to “I rise” in the last stanza becomes a vigorous statement of resilience. In line 9, “Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear” once again holds significant value the spiritual nature of her ancestors. Daybreak symbolizes the start of a new day and in this instance the narrator is conveying the breakthrough or new beginnings with the abolishment of slavery. She is “the dream and the hope of the slave” (Stanza 8, line 12). The dream symbolizing those who were brave enough to rise to the occasion in trying times like Martin Luther King Jr. who fought for civil and economic rights to end black oppression. Everything that the white mad (the oppressor) had was what was stripped from African Americans. Minority men and women dreamt of having equality and were forced to see their oppressor living the life of freedom. Freedom was denied to the person of color in the “land of the free”. Through her use of repetition and ancestry she exudes that she is living this dream for her ancestors embodying what was taken away from her ancestors.

The United States has undergone many era’s of injustice. Filled with numerous wrongdoings. Maya Angelou alludes that she does not view herself any different from her neighbor, friend or enemy. In stanza eight line five she states “I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide” highlighting how she is full of strength. The open ocean is enormous, vast with enduring waves and she is just that. This metaphor illustrates how her life has been so full of vast unknowns, yet the leaps and bounds one takes to overcome and rise above those obstacles is what gives her the ability to “[leave] behind nights of terror and fear” (line 7). The past will always be in the back of her mind but “welling and swelling [she bears] the tide” (line 8). The strength and resilience she embodies such as the never ending, deep and dark ocean is what gives her the strength to look past that and recognize that she is equal to her fellow Americans no matter her the color of her skin or her ancestry. On the other hand, another interpretation that can be drawn from this metaphor is the slave trade that occurred where black people were taken away from their homeland to serve as slaves to the white man in the United States.

The ocean she describes is black and never at rest, symbolizing the lack of rest, peace and dark days spent sailing as prisoners on the leaping waters of the sea, “leaving behind nights of terror and fear”. The ability to find your voice when you have constantly been stomped on and silenced is a treasure that Maya Angelou portrays as the ultimate tool of empowerment in her poem Still I Rise. Readers are able to take “You may tread me in the very dirt/ But still, like dust, I’ll rise” (Stanza 1, line 3-4) and comprehend how the narrator is able to turn her head towards the light in the darkest situations, with so much ease she is able rise naturally like dirt even when interrupted from its natural heavy gravitational pull the earth.

The narrator is able to portray how day in and day out when one constantly faces troubles the ability to find your voice to speak out will give you the strength to stand up for what you believe in. She able to do this through her chosen dialect, repetition and metaphors which embodies how one finds value in themselves, which drives the ability to push back against adversities and rise above.

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Self-empowerment in Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise. (2021, Dec 08). Retrieved from

Self-empowerment in Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise
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