Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is an African-American woman poet. Her poetry thus addresses two kinds of oppression – both racial oppression, and sexism. A contemporary of Angelou’s named Zora Neale Hurston has said that the black woman is the mule of the world, bearing all the disrespect imaginable on her own feeble shoulders. In ‘Still I Rise’, Angelou expresses faith in the notion that the black woman will ultimately be able to put off this weight from her shoulders, and stand tall and proud.
‘Still I Rise’ was first published in Angelou’s 1978 collection of poetry entitled ‘And Still I Rise’. The words “still” already emphasizes the black woman’s ability to stand up for her rights again and again, as and when required, but the “and” in the title of the poetry collection works to further reinforce that sense of defiance among the sisterhood that Angelou identifies herself with.
The poem itself consists of seven stanzas of four lines each, and a longer ending stanza of fifteen lines’ length. In the first stanza, Angelou says that the oppressors of black women have presented a distorted view of them throughout history by means of vicious lies. However, Angelou as an individual, and black women as a collective, will not be pushed into the dirt any longer. Instead they will all dislodge themselves like dust rising in the wind. They will defy their oppressors to raise their heads, and make their presence felt.
The second stanza starts with a pair of pointed questions. Angelou asks whether the dominant white male population resents her “sassiness”, for they seem gloomy unlike they usually are, deriving joy from oppressing women like her. Angelou’s strong and forceful attitude is undeniable here. Then Angelou goes on to define exactly how her sassiness looks to the outside world, and in doing so, she evokes an amusing image – that of oil wells pumping in her living room. Angelou implies that her oppressors sought to bring her down by emphasizing her poverty (in her personal life, she had to take odd jobs, and even work as a prostitute at one time, to make ends meet). However, even in such a state, she has managed to look like she has no financial concerns at all.
In the third stanza, Angelou switches to future tense to show that she and all other African-American women will continue to rise inevitably. And just how inevitable will this be? As surely as the movement of the moon and the sun, and consequently, the occurrence of high tides and low tides, black women will stand up for the respect they deserve unswervingly.
The fourth stanza shows how her oppressors expect to see any black woman. They expect her to bow her head down and lower her eyes, looking at the ground with shoulders drooping in despair. They expect her to speak in a weakened voice. However, Angelou and her fellow women are not so submissive.
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