Maya Angelou was an American poet (1928-2014) known largely for her autobiographical works which express the trauma of Black lives in her country and their strength for liberation and survival.
The poem ‘Still I Rise’ is a phenomenal poem read widely for its poignant and powerful narration.
Angelou said, “All my work, my life, everything I do is about survival, not just bare, awful, plodding survival, but survival with grace and faith. While one may encounter many defeats, one must not be defeated.” This poem is a true representative of this firm confidence to live no matter what.
‘Still I Rise’ is a poem from the third volume of poetry ‘And Still I Rise’ which she published in 1978. In an easily approachable manner, which is a characteristic of all popular poems, this poem outrightly speaks of the unknowable strength of the human spirit which can rise against everything.
Angelou also wrote a play of the same name. The poem speaks of the spirit of Black people in particular but by the end, we know it is the undefeatable spirit of whole humanity that fights against limitless crimes and injustice.
In the United States, white people have always exploited people of other races especially Black people who were the result of the slave trade and immigration. Due to rampant discrimination, Black people suffered immensely.
Maya Angelou’s own life went through critical phases but her steadfastness helped her to go through everything and triumph in the end as a great icon for the indomitable Black spirit. This poem is like a final banner of victory of Black lives.
The poem begins with the fact that the White oppressors are also the one who writes the history of their country. The rhyming scheme with which it begins deliberately defies every technique.
Afro-Americans have a tradition of singing spirituals. It is a religious song that fills one with hope. Here the poem does the same but in a secular way. The repetition of ‘Still I Rise’ at the end of every stanza gives us a persistent sense of self which is in the poet.
Harold Bloom names this African-American paradigm of rising through and above experience as “American Religion.” If it is so then ‘Still I Rise’ is a mantra of that religion.
The poem expresses the pride of Black beauty. Black people are largely known for their fashion statement which is always bold and aggressive. It was a part of the defence mechanism. So, the poet asks her enemies, “Does my sassiness upset you?”, “Does my haughtiness offend you?”
Black American writers who expressed their sense of awareness and confidence in the face of unbearable exploitations, have referred to “the little me within the big me.”
It means that no matter what this world does to us from outside, the little part inside us which is beyond such injustice remains unaffected and one must always refer to that in order to rise above trials.
That’s when even if the oppressor “trod me in the very dirt” or “shoot me with words” or “cut me with eyes” or “kill me with your hatefulness”, the poet says, “I will rise.”
The poem uses concrete imageries to render emotional experience but it remains a woman’s voice that comes from a “women-centered memory.” It challenges the common enemy which is White but also the enemy in general which is male-centered.
The poem finally ends with a hope that the nights of terror and fear are over. The history which Angelou was referring to started growing better.
A hope for “wondrously clear daybreak” has pervaded the poet who is equally proud of her ancestry & present and she is determined to rise.