You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
The first thing I read by Maya Angelou was her memoir, I know why the caged bird sings, which covers her childhood years. I found that book to be a real inspiration. I was astounded by the spirit of this incredible woman because, although she suffered atrocious traumas and hardships in her life, and was subjected to all sorts of abuse, she rose above it all to become this utterly amazing person, and a poet with a positive message. There is a defiant generosity in her poetry, and it is just brimming with attitude — and I love that.
This poem in particular — probably one of her best-known — is certainly full of defiance. As a survivor of childhood abuse, Angelou here expresses defiance of that oppression, speaking with pride of her own “sassiness”, and “sexiness” — dancing “like I’ve got diamonds/ at the meeting of my thighs”. But Still I rise also speaks for the African-American people for whom Angelou fought so courageously during the Civil Rights Movement. That she is speaking for them is made clear at the end of the poem when she talks about being a “black ocean, leaping and wide”, and says “I am the dream and the hope of the slave”. This is a poem of victories with its repetitive chant, “I rise/ I rise/ I rise”. This is a chant but it might also be an incantation, willing this to be so — willing other peoples to “rise” and fight for their rights, as the African-American people have done.
I love the descriptions of wealth in this poem — she uses them to evoke what it feels like to break free from oppression. This is relevant to both the political persecution that Angelou lived through, and also the personal and sexual abuse that she suffered. It is as though the poet has to explain the value of Freedom in monetary terms to people who never been deprived of it. Her “sassiness”, “haughtiness”, and “sexiness” come from a sense of pride, of self-worth, of Freedom from oppression… all these things that she has won for herself, through political fight, and through personal battles too. The poet explains that now she walks “like I’ve got oil wells/ pumping in my living room”, and laughs “like I’ve got gold mines/ Diggin’ in my own back yard”, and dances because she’s got “diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs.” I just love these images because they’re so provocative and triumphant.
It seems to me that this poem is a hymn for oppressed peoples and people anywhere.