“Still I Rise”

“Still I Rise”

“Still I Rise” – Maya Angelou (Poet’s Life)

“Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou, is a courageous and inspiring poem written about the emerging prominence of African Americans during the nation's civil rights movement. It channels the expression of the free spirit of all African Americans through the voice of one woman who speaks of overcoming the hardships of the beginnings of the race in America. The poem responds to black ancestors’ embittered cries with an indomitable exclamation that African Americans will rise above all inequities and flourish as a people. It remains Angelou's favorite poem and theme amidst a great oeuvre of books, plays, and poetry; she often includes a dramatic reading in personal appearances. “Still I Rise” was published in Angelou's poem collection titled And Still I Rise in 1978, two years after her musical dramatic production And Still I Rise was produced. It can also be found in The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou, published by Random House in 1994.

Angelou's voice rings loudly with hope and determination. She has recounted that all her work is about survival, and she encourages all to look for the positive things in life, especially in times of adversity. While her poems remind readers of past tragedies and injustices, overall they are a testimony to the power of striving to survive in life with dignity and grace. “Still I Rise” is an excellent example offering just that.


Angelou was born Marguerite Ann Johnson on April 4, 1928, in St. Louis, Missouri, the second child of Bailey Johnson, Sr., and Vivian Baxter Johnson. When she was three years old, her parents divorced, and she traveled by rail, along with her brother, Bailey, Jr., to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, in Stamps, Arkansas. She and Bailey called her “Momma,” and aptly so, as she provided what little stability the children would have in her world of work, duty, and religion. Bailey started calling his sister “Maya” as short for “my-a sister.”

In 1935, Bailey, Sr., swept the children away to leave them with their mother in St. Louis. Tragically, the environment was unstable, and Maya was raped by her mother's boyfriend, a Mr. Freeman. At the trial, she was too frightened to testify against him, and he was subsequently released; but “justice” was served in the streets, as the innocent girl's uncles beat Mr. Freeman to death. Maya, however, equated his death with her disclosing of his name and felt acutely guilty. She stopped talking as a consequence, which her mother interpreted as impudence. The children were sent back to live in Stamps with Henderson, who enlisted the aid of Mrs. Flowers, the community's intellectual, to help draw the still-mute Maya out of her shell. Mrs. Flowers introduced Maya to poetry, telling her that it must be read aloud to be loved. Maya began speaking again as she recited poetry to herself, and she developed a love of literature and learning. Her voice now resounds continually through her volumes of verse and prose; the stories of her childhood can be found in her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969).

In 1940, Johnson graduated with honors from Lafayette County Training School in Stamps and then moved to California to live with her mother and her new paramour, Daddy Clidell. Johnson attended night classes in drama and dance at the California Labor School and became the first black female trolley-car conductor. She graduated from Mission High School in San Francisco in 1945, and through an unplanned pregnancy, her son Clyde was born the same year. She married Tosh Angelos in 1949, but they divorced in 1952. Later that year she won a scholarship to study dance, and she began a career as a performer, touring with the U.S. State Department's sponsorship of the African American opera Porgy and Bess through 1954 and 1955. She adapted her name to Maya Angelou (a variant of Angelos) when she became a performer. In 1957, she appeared in the off-Broadway play Calypso Heat-wave as a featured singer and dancer. She performed until 1961, when she traveled with a new love, a South African named Vusumzi Make, to London and Africa. The relationship fell apart, though, as he disapproved of her working for a newspaper in Cairo, and she continued alone to Ghana, where she worked as the assistant director of music and drama at the University of Ghana, as well as at the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation and the Ghanaian Times. She was asked by Malcolm X to return to the United States and help with his campaign, but he was assassinated shortly after her arrival.

In 1966, back in California, Angelou continued to write and perform, including writing and producing a ten-part program for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on African traditions in American life, Black, Blues, Black, which aired in 1968. In 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was nominated for the National Book Award. In 1971, a collection of poems, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'fore I Diiie became a Pulitzer nominee. From there, more poetry, musicals, films, books, and screenplays filled Angelou's life, and she became beloved by Americans. She was presented with the Ladies’ Home Journal Woman of the Year in Communications award in 1976, was dubbed one of USA Today's Fifty Black Role Models in 1989, and has received a multitude of other awards, including over twenty-five honorary doctorate degrees. Her documentary on African American women in the arts received the Golden Eagle Award from PBS. Women in Communications, Inc., gave her the Matrix Award for Books in 1983. She held a pioneering role in the Screen Directors Guild and was elected to the board of trustees of the American Film Institute. President Gerald Ford appointed her to the Bicentennial Commission, and President Jimmy Carter gave her a position on the Commission for the International Year of the Woman. She was given a Fulbright Scholarship to tour with an international commission to Ghana in 1986. She received the Candace Award in 1990 and the Horatio Alger Award in 1992. A crowning achievement in her life was being selected by President William J. Clinton to write a poem and deliver it at his inauguration in 1993. “On the Pulse of Morning” was delivered with grace and humor in a spirit of hope and unity.

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition): "Still I Rise." Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale, 2011. 218-236. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.

“Still I Rise” – Maya Angelou (Historical Events)


Civil Rights Movement

Angelou began her writing career in the midst of one of the greatest upheavals of social change in U.S. history. American society, though based on freedom and democracy, had always been dominated by white males. During the 1960s, the civil rights movement reached its pinnacle. Many organizations were formed to publicize the surge for racial equality. Angelou had married the civil rights activist Vusumzi Make and moved to Cairo and then Ghana, where a thriving group of African American expatriates had moved. She met the radical civil rights activist Malcolm X during one of his visits to Ghana and corresponded with him frequently after he returned to the United States. Their discussions of the civil rights movement in America were highly conceptual, and she remained a faithful friend as his views changed from radical stances into a more mature vision for the cause. After divorcing the abusive Make, Angelou returned to the United States in 1964 in order to help Malcolm X start his new Organization of Afro-American Unity. Just days after her arrival, Malcolm X was assassinated. His cause died with him, and Angelou began to align herself closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led by African American clergy, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took a peaceful approach to civil rights. King asked Angelou to be the northern coordinator for the SCLC. Freedom rides and sit-ins were staged where segregation prohibited access, such as on buses and in restaurants. At the March on Washington of 1963, more than two hundred thousand demonstrators heard King, by now the most prominent voice in America for civil rights, give his “I Have a Dream” speech. Soon after, in 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which secured for African Americans an end to various forms of legal discrimination. The Voting Rights Act followed in 1965, finally guaranteeing African Americans the right to vote in the United States. The federal affirmative-action program—taking into account race and gender when hiring or in school admissions to counter the historical effects of discrimination—also began in earnest in 1965.

By the late 1960s, louder voices, impatient with the drawn-out process of moving African Americans into mainstream society, came forward into the fray. SNCC, now led by the radical Stokely Carmichael, coined the phrase “Black Power” and condoned violence, if necessary to achieve social and legal justice and economic equality. King's assassination at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, occurred on Angelou's birthday, as she busied herself with party preparations. She was devastated. His assassination set off rioting in many major cities, creating further tears in the racial fabric of society. In Detroit, police were diligent in quashing the uprising when violent riots left forty-three dead and caused forty-five million dollars in property damage.

Much work was left to be done, and Maya Angelou continued the fight in her own way. Publishing over sixty works, including books, plays, screenplays, essays and children's books, Angelou has won the hearts of Americans of all colors. She has been on the lecture circuit since the 1990s, inspiring audiences worldwide with her message of inclusion and peace.

The Feminist Movement

With the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan in 1963, a feminist movement was launched in the United States. It challenged the long-standing idea that women should find fulfillment only through child rearing and homemaking. Friedan also presided over the development of the National Organization for Women (NOW) until the 1970s. The Equal Rights Amendment was proposed by Congress in 1972 but failed to gain the ratification of three-fourths of the states. By 1981, Friedan was still promoting the ideas of women, redefining the family and bringing men into the realm of child care; she also supported equal rights for women at work and flexible work schedules.

But at times there has seemed to be a disconnect between the realities of white feminism and of African American feminism. According to Angelou, the African American family was almost always held together entirely by the woman. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) became a great inspiration to black feminists, especially since the experiences of black women have been so different from those of white women. The poem “Still I Rise” is written specifically with a feminine voice. It gives praise to the black woman's courage, identity, and self-worth. It recognizes the pain and hardships she has had to overcome and her emergence as a force to be reckoned with. Among Angelou's other poems, “Phenomenal Woman” is the black woman's feminist outcry. Angelou proclaims that being a woman is not about being pretty and that women are beautiful because they are strong, capable, proud, and independent. “Weekend Glory” is a humorous guidebook to living a successful life as a single black woman. Therein Angelou expounds on the blessing of work (even if it is not the highest paying), staying out of debt, going to church, going dancing, and being thankful for being a woman of color. She calls out posers and those who pretend to be rich, buying fancy cars and houses they cannot afford. She says such people should watch her on Saturday night and thus learn how to live a glorious and simple life. “Our Grandmothers” is one of Angelou's most beloved poems, recalling stories of slave women and their children who hid from slave owners when the children became old enough to be sold. The poet chronicles the stories of black women over the centuries and the tears that followed the heartbreaks in their lives. From tortured slave to poverty-stricken pregnant woman at the abortion clinic, the poem is both heartrending and triumphant, as the black grandmother becomes the angel to watch over the new generations of strong, independent black women.

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition): "Still I Rise." Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale, 2011. 218-236. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.

“Still I Rise” – Maya Angelou (Criticism)


Stanza 1

Lies about and misrepresentations of the treatment of the narrator—an autobiographical voice that stands not just for Angelou, or an anonymous black woman narrator, but for all African Americans—are addressed softly. The you of the poem may thus refer to a white (or nonblack) oppressor or perhaps to the white race more broadly. More degradations ground the narrator into the dust, which swirls up with the solemn promise of resilience. The dark beginnings of the poem are registered as a starting place from which to rise.

Stanza 2

The narrator asks poignant questions inferring that her attitude may be disturbing, as she is not dragged down by the weight of prejudice and injustice. She wants to know if anyone is annoyed that she walks with the self-satisfaction of a wealthy oil tycoon. Does she appear to be putting on airs? Is she arrogant? Does it make anyone want to “put her in her place,” so to speak? It seems evident that the answers do not matter to the author: the questions are rhetorical and more like statements of her courage and protest.

Stanza 3

The narrator assumes her place of dignity among the highest things of nature: the suns and the moons. And like them, as reliably as they rise, and with as much inspiration as hopes bursting into the air like a dancer, she will rise, too. Having been a professional dancer herself, Angelou knows the sense of dancing gleefully, on what she has called feet that were too big.

Stanza 4

More questions, which are now more direct, spatter this stanza. Was it hoped that the narrator could be perceived as beaten, shamed, afraid to look into the eyes of her so-called betters? Was it thought her demeanor should be woeful, downtrodden, fatigued, and weepy? The assumed and unequivocal answers to these questions on the part of the other would be shamefaced assents. But the narrator only mildly protests with her thought provoking questions; there is no chanting or ranting to be found here.

Stanza 5

The next question is similarly direct. Whether the you is white people as a whole or just the masters of the plantations and the like, it is assumed that they will be made ill at ease by the arrogance of the narrator. Does it irk you, she asks on behalf of her race, that I am laughing about my newly found wealth of independence and self-importance? She suspects that the answer again is” yes” and humorously hopes to teach a lesson.

Stanza 6

This stanza is like a declaration, a promise, and even almost a dare. No matter what you do tome, the black everywoman narrator asserts, I will rise. The weapons to be employed by the antagonist are words, cutting eyes, and hatefulness. But I, says the narrator, will not be killed; I will rise anyway. As long as there is air to breathe, I will speak again. These words fall in line with the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom she worked closely before his assassination.

Stanza 7

This stanza is probably the most controversial one of the poem. It challenges black female stereotypes, typically drawing on or encompassing images of a slave girl, a sexual victim, a “Mammy,” a spiritual leader, a physical healer, and/or a pillar of wisdom and of home, hearth, and sustenance. This stanza breaks those molds and fashions the narrator into a siren, a seductive, sensuous woman. Her beauty is powerful, and she is as desirable and luminous as fine diamonds.

Stanza 8

The narrator here begins to solidify the truth in the continuity of her message. The past is painful, and history is shameful. Let it be set aside. The narrator will rise, leaping high as the giant swells of a big, black ocean. A new image of the black woman is on the rise, and it is coming in with the new tide. It is certain, it is inevitable, it will wash away the past. This vision was and remains quite prophetic, and it becomes more true every day.

Stanza 9

It is a hopeful new day; the terrors and fears of the past nights fade away. The narrator rises by virtue of the great sacrifices of the slaves and wounds of the ancestors. She gives homage to the past and to those who have suffered as well as to those looking hopefully to the future. She is the epitome of the dreams and indomitable spirits of the past, to rise again, and again, and again. She not only assures society that her rising will happen but further implores everyone to let it come about with grace, unity, mutual respect, and positivity.


African American Pride

African American pride is a theme that encompasses the struggles, the courage, the culture, and the contributions of African Americans in the face of many difficulties. It is a celebration of recognition of the victories of overcoming prejudice, winning the fight for equal rights, and glorifying the intrinsic qualities and strengths that make the race invaluable as a complement to all peoples. It is a testament to the strong sense of community that has remained intact among African Americans and to their implacable sense of self-worth. Angelou has stated, as quoted by Lyman Hagen in Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: Acritical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, that “Still I Rise” represents the “indomitable spirit of the black people.” This is a burning spirit that four hundred years of oppression have been unable to extinguish. The poem infers that the race will not only endure but will rise above all. In Angelou's exuberant metaphors, they are the owners of oil wells, gold mines, and exquisite physical and inner beauty. They are represented as a wide, leaping ocean, strong and invincible. Their bodies alone are as if adorned with jewels, and they dance with exultation. The narrator's voice soars with pride as she proclaims that they will not be bound to the chains and sorrows of the past. They will continue to rise, she proclaims, in spite of any adversity, and because of their trials, they will become even stronger. In “Still I Rise,” Angelou has accomplished a remarkable thing, in that she speaks to blacks and whites together and separately in a voice that can be heard by both.


Injustice arises from ignorance of or disbelief in the concept—enshrined in the founding documents of the United States—that all people are born equal, regardless of race. Disenfranchisement, mistreatment, and prejudice against a race ultimately result in social, political, and economic hardship perpetrated against those people. Virtually every form of injustice has been endured by African Americans. Prejudice, hatred, slavery, torture, murder, and rape lead the long list of injustices that have been condemned by many brave voices like Angelou's. “Still I Rise” conveys the spectacular weight of the hardships that African Americans have had to overcome. Although the overall theme of the poem is one of determination to prevail, injustice ispresented throughout to bring reality and a sense of history. But this is not considered to be a militant poem. It simply tells the truth, and lightly at that, about the plight of African Americans. Misconceptions and lies are alluded to, such as common early myths that they were of lesser intelligence, had no souls, or were not even human. The poem determines to dispel such myths, but with a positive tone, with a jubilant and cheerful taunting. It leaves little room for woes, sorrows, and tears of suffering.


Determination is the quality of having a strong degree of self-control to achieve the things that one deems important. Angelou has been lauded as one of the most determined, devoted, and courageous black women in the twentieth century. She continues to maintain that status in the early twenty-first century as a woman in her eighties, still determined to use her voice as long as it lasts to speak to the worldwide audience she has gained. By the time the narrator finishes the poem “Still I Rise,” she has stated that she will rise nearly a dozen times. It is paramount to see the everywoman narrator as proud, beautiful, and responsible despite the ugliness of racism. Developing a positive posture in the midst of unfair stereotyping must be enabled. The narrator demands that whites step back and try to be objective about their preconceived ideas. Willing things to change works, when courage and determination are applied. Determining to press on day after day is the essence of survival.

African American History

Angelou's narrator invokes the origins of the African American race when she alludes to the shabby huts the slaves were lodged in upon arrival in North America. She refers to that history as a time of pain and shame for her people. She notes that some may twist the horror of that history into lies, or forget it or pretend it never happened. Some may just walk right over that history, and her people, grinding them into the ground. She asks white listeners if they want to keep her downtrodden: do things have to remain as they were in the past? Is it time for change, or do whites want blacks to always sing the blues and be sorrowful and oppressed? Is a frown all she will be entitled to, and must she wear her tears every day?


One of Angelou's main themes in “Still IRise” is to say, “I like me.” Herself-confidence abounds as she imagines herself strutting around like an Arabian princess who owns all the oil in the world. She compares her determination to succeed to the likelihood of the sun rising in the morning. She describes herself as a bit arrogant because she acts like she owns the largest gold mine in Africa. She depicts herse lf as a diva whose legs are as if adorned with diamonds. All of this may seem over the top, but it is intentionally done in juxtaposition to the images that have been borne by or projected onto black women before her. Angelou wants to tell her sisters that it is appropriate to laugh, dance, and love themselves, and most importantly to believe in themselves.


Line 4 of stanza 1 informs the reader that the poem is about resilience. It is a rephrasing of the famous civil rights movement motto of Martin Luther King (with whom she worked): “We shall overcome.” There is a note of defiance when she asks about her right to appear sassy. The inference is that if it is insulting, that response is unwarranted, but if it is simply surprising, she is pleased.

The first line of stanza 5 is much the same. Is she haughty because she is black, self-confident, and happy and has a great deal of self-esteem?Her attempts to be shocking are peppered with humor, while the tones of resistance and defiance are defused but deliberate. True resistance is evident in stanza 6 when Angelou accuses the (white) reader of being hostile and violent. This stanza takes on the most defiant tone in the poem, evoking anger and a resolve to overcome.


Representative Voice

Angelou says that the narrator in “Still I Rise” is feminine, and she speaks not only for herself but for her gender and her entire race. Thus, in the tradition of black writers speaking for the race, she can speak of the injustices done to the slaves of the past as if they were done to her. She can speak for African Americans of the future as if she will rise for them. She can be militant at times but always covers this sense with a soothing balm of reconciliation.


The incremental repetition of the title phrase serves to build the poem from whisper to climactic shout. Angelou often recites this poem aloud because of the effect this technique has in inspiring the listener. It is reminiscent of a song, or a sermon, where the message is repeated with increasing fervor, to stir the hearts of listeners.


Rhyme is present in “Still I Rise,” as used to link lines 2 and 4 of the first seven stanzas and in couplet form in the final two stanzas. Jive talk and internal rhyme have been popular in black culture, from familiar folklore to rap music; Angelou also uses rhyme for humor in her light poetry. The rhymes in “Still I Rise” seem to enhance the dramatic tone of the poem. Perhaps the fact that she is a singer helps her hear and compose verse in rhyme.


The theatrical in Angelou comes out in her rhythms. She says that before she writes a poem, she always starts with finding a rhythm. Hagen, in Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet, quotes Angelou in an interview with Bill Moyers:

Quite often there are allusions made in black American writing, there are rhythms set in the writing and counter-rhythms that mean a great deal to blacks. A white American can come in and he will hear, he will understand hopefully, the gist. And that's what one is talking about. The other, is sort of “in” talk.

The “in” talk is the sort of rhythm and sound that, as she suggests, perhaps only African Americans can appreciate. The use of vernacular is applied to complement the rhythm to make the poetry unique and entertaining to people of all cultures. Although a knowledge of black slang is useful to understanding many of her phrasings, this poem encompasses universal themes, ordinary occurrences, and fundamental concepts, bringing the piece together for the enjoyment of all.

Spiritual Sound

“Still I Rise” sounds like a sermon by Martin Luther King or a spiritual song like “We Shall Not Be Moved” or “We Shall Overcome.” Hagen states, “The lines remind us of the black spiritual ‘Rise and Shine’ as well as other religious hymns that express hope.” The poem seems to call for a boost in volume through the stanzas; as the narrator rises, so will the volume and intensity of the sound. The poem is rousing and inspirational, bringing home Angelou's themes of survival and determination.


“Still I Rise” is a poem that celebrates black women, inspiring hope while challenging the stereotypical roles assigned to them throughout American history. Sandra Cookson reviewed Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou in World Literature Today and reports that Angelou “prefers strong, straightforward rhyme to free verse.” Scriptural language, the exhortation of the pulpit, and the rhythm of rap music are all used in her poetry. While the voice of “Still I Rise” is definitively female, the poem speaks to all blacks as well as whites, as she invokes the horrors of the travesties endured by the slaves of the past. According to Cookson, Angelou speaks harshly to whites. She asks poignant questions of them and challenges their tolerance of a black woman who is sassy, exuberant, proud, and sexy. She calls upon them to examine their prejudices while at the same time using humor to de-escalate the challenge. Amidst the cries of pain and bitterness, she propounds the ability to overcome it all and embrace life. Cookson describes the poem as “celebratory.” She says that Angelou's poems are at their best when southern slang is employed along with a streetwise type of dialogue. She notes the use of rhythm in the poem, which Angelou recognizes as the starting point for the conception of her poetry; she leans heavily on the musical rhythms of blues, jazz, and rap. Cookson also points out the use of religious language and the vehicle of poetry as a pulpit. And while Angelou may use her pulpit to heap guilt upon whites, she can quickly turn her message to secular matters, such as sexual attraction. Cookson notes that “Still I Rise” is “a poem about the survival of black women despite every kind of humiliation” and every prohibition that has been forced upon them since the days of slavery. She calls the rhetoric “in-your-face” in stanza after stanza, until the powerful climax in which Angelou exults joy.

In reviewing Angelou's first three autobiographies in Feminist Review, Ingrid Pollard declares that “Maya Angelou hopes her influence will be to ‘encourage courage,’” which she does by talking, writing, and persisting as an African American woman in complete control of her life. She is the woman in “Still I Rise.” She challenges not only blacks but whites as well, in that she encourages both races to have the courage to do what they know is right in their heart.

Lyman B. Hagen, in Heart of a Woman, Mind of a Writer, and Soul of a Poet: A Critical Analysis of the Writings of Maya Angelou, reveals that Angelou categorizes “Still I Rise” as a poem of mild protest, although newspaper reviews yet categorized it as quite radical in 1978. According to Hagen, the more militant poems appear in the second half of Angelou's first volume of poetry, a section titled “Just Before the World Ends.” In reviewing “Still I Rise,” Hagen praises the poet, stating, “Angelou expresses unshakable faith that one will overcome; one will triumph; one will Rise!”

“Still I Rise” deserves much greater attention from critics. In “‘Older Sisters Are Very Sobering Things’: Contemporary Women Poets and the Female Affiliation Complex,” Jane Dowson asks, “Are there adequate critical works on Maya Angelou … to keep the record straight?” She answers the question by asserting that more reviews of contemporary women writers are vital to fuller understanding. “Still I Rise” is a poem that deserves literary praise as well as significant sociological recognition in American culture as a beacon toward equality for all.

Source Citation (MLA 7th Edition): "Still I Rise." Poetry for Students. Ed. Sara Constantakis. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale, 2011. 218-236. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 6 Feb. 2014.


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