Still I Rise: Political, Societal, and Cultural Influence

Sissy Rodriguez

Still I Rise”

When Maya Angelou wrote her famous poem, Still I Rise, in 1978, its unclear if she knew the impact it would have on the world as a whole. The poem, which represents the inferiority and societal struggles between blacks and whites was a very real, and still continues to be, an issue in modern day America. Angelou’s poem goes far beyond its eight stanzas, striking inspiration and hope into each individual who reads it. She uses her own personal experiences to instill a feeling of relatableness and a community of healing for the reader (Bloom, 127). Influential people throughout the years have looked to this poem for guidance and courage; some of the most recognizable including former President Bill Clinton and rapper Tupac. Even though this poem was written nearly 40 years ago, it is still just as influential on politics, society, and culture as it was then as it is now. Angelou, throughout her career, has been able to transform her personal experience into political discourse through her poetry.

The late Maya Angelou is remembered as an outstanding poet, a civil rights activist, and a bold African American woman. All three of these identities shine throughout Still I Rise. In the poem, the narrator is a woman, who is very direct and blunt. The literal interpretation of the poem could be considered a sassy response to those who mistreat the narrator. But, on a deeper level, the poem has become an anthem for the oppressed and the exploited, specifically those dealing with racial bias as African American citizens. What is so incredible about Angelou's writing is her ability to command attention and engagement from the reader to decipher the underlying meaning in her works, making the reader take an active role in reading by allowing them to tie in real world experiences and issues surrouding our world (Bloom, 127). This theme is evident in Still I Rise The poem’s first stanza is one of the most powerful. Angelou begins her poem with, “You may write me down in history With your bitter, twisted lies, You may tread me in the very dirt But still, like dust, I'll rise.” Beginning with her first word, “you,” the narrator initiates a powerful tone. The poem is clearly directed towards someone, as Angelou creates a self-assertiveness towards someone whose oppressed and mistreated her. Through Angelou’s conclusiveness, its easy why this poem has become such an icon.

Looking through a political lense at this poem over time is very dynamic. When Angelou wrote this poem in 1978, she was (age). By this time, she had already been heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, with ties to Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She grew up in the Jim Crow South, facing first hand oppression. Around the time she wrote Still I Rise, she was a prominent figure in the African American realm, and her work was clearly influenced by the politics that surrounded her. In her first stanza, she writes, “You may write me down in history, with your bitter twisted lies.” The narrator is referring to the everyday obstacles faced by blacks.  Later in the poem, she writes, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.” The narrator is bluntly sharing how she as a person is shaped by the politics of slavery that affected her upbringing. It is clearly visible in the narrator’s words how the very politics surrounding her are the same ones that inspired her to “rise.”

In contrast, Still I Rise has also been involved in more modern day political action all across the world. Nelson Mandela chose Still I Rise as his inauguration poem in 1994. She even spoke at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. After Angelou’s passing in 2014, many prominent political figures spoke about how her work influenced their own lives. President Obama stated, “She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.” Beginning in 1978, Still I Rise had quickly become and still continues to be a national anthem for the politically oppressed and abused. It’s underlying spirit and celebration will continue to be a shining light in the world of political adversity that many still deal with today.  

               Still I Rise can also be examined through a societal view. Even today, society still marginalizes and puts down certain groups of people. In Still I Rise, the narrator touches on multiple social sectors within society being discriminated against, African Americans as well as women. In the seventh stanza, the narrator states, “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?” When examining this stanza, you can see that the narrator is once again using the word “you.” This poem is directed at the reader, and causes one to take a step back and see if they are playing a part in putting down others in every day society. The tone in this stanza is powerful and strong, with no apologies for being a woman. Its almost as if the narrator is bragging about being a woman, making no apologies as she talks about dancing as if there were diamonds between her thighs. This is an important message directed at society as a whole. The narrator proudly represents and flaunts her identity as a strong, bold woman; which for years was looked down upon by society. 

               In relation to Maya Angelou, the fact that she is making an exhibition of her identity as a woman is especially captivating. At the age of eight, Maya Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at the time. For years, Angelou remained silent, not speaking to anyone. It is incredible to think that at this time, Angelou had no voice at all. In Still I Rise, Angelou uses her voice to speak on behalf on all woman of society to be proud and make no apologies for exactly who they are.  Angelou was able to use her own voice to speak on the behalf of thousands of women who face hardships in society because of their gender. In fact, some scholars have studied Angelou's works through the way in which she used writing literature to free her from the traumatic effects as a result of this incident (Smith, 2). They argue it was a liberating, theraputic experience and coping mechanism for her; that her best writing came from her darkest hours. Specifically in this poem, she was able to make a display of her own personal tragedy and turn it into something beautiful and instill a power of unity for women everywhere.

            On November 18th, 2015, Shining a Light: A Concert for Progress on Race in America took place in Los Angeles. In attendance included John Legend, Sia, Alicia Keys, Ed Sheeran, Zac Brown Band, Miguel, and Nicki Minaj. The purpose of the concert was to raise money and awareness in light of recent culture conflicts in society, surrounding the deaths of Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice by police officers. Nicki Minaj took the stage and in front of the crowd read “Still I Rise.” This poem, nearly half a century old, is still able to represent and reiterate cultural issues today, shining a very public light on those facing adversity and devaluation in 2016. The reading of this poem was not only appropriate but strategic; the words of this poem have become forever instilled in many lives, and will continue to inspire many more in years to come.

In summary, Still I Rise has become one of Angelou's most recognizable works and instilled her legacy as one of the world's best poets. In her own words, Angelou once said, "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." The feelings one gets when reading this poem are some of the most sought after: inspired, driven, fierce, unapologetic. In all of Angelou's works she has been extremely influential, Still I Rise being no differerent. One of her former students at Wake Forest said, “I feel like a piece of Dr. Angelou will always be with me,” Williams says. “The idea that you are somebody. That you are a human being and that you are connected to the next human being. So when I think about her legacy, she’s inspired me to continue to be a champion for these things.” Although Angelou has passed, her works as a civil rights activist, a teacher, a feminist, and first and foremost a poet, will live on in history and will continue to inspire people everywhere to "rise."

 

 

Citations:

Bloom, Harold. Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Maya Angelou. New York: Infobase, 2009. Print.

Smith, Valerie. Self-discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narratives. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991. Print.

Comments

I must say I am very impressed with your interpretation and review on such a popular and compelling poem. I, personally, have never read the poem all the way through but from your descriptions, I feel as though I've already read it once before myself. I like how you delicately incorporated Angelou's own history along with history of oppresion to not only link it with the issues that are still prevalent today but also use it as a tool to enhance your understanding of her work. I think this was thoroughly put together, and the research behind it helps to pull your writing together.

 

Great job!

Lindsay Byers's picture

Sissy,

This is a great paper! You are very thorough in your descriptions not only in the poem but how the poem relates to Maya Angelou. The fact that you not only interpreted the words and various meanings of them in her poem, but you also discussed the way the words and ideas presented a certain feel added an extra layer of depth that I really enjoyed. Using a political lens for this poem was very insightful, and showing its relation to various political leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton allowed me to put the poem in a more modern context and understand it on a deeper level, as well as your references to pop culture icons such as Nicki Minaj.