“And Still I Rise”
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.
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 death of Maya Angelou allows us a moment to reflect on this remarkable woman’s contribution to our lives. Many more thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate persons than I will weigh in on her passing, but I wanted to share this beautiful poem that she’s written and my thoughts.
The defiance of the first stanza, bitterly and determinedly recognizing the untruths spoken, set the tone for a poem of strength, of courage, of resilience. That the speaker will rise, like the very place where she will be trodden and forgotten, dust, inspires. She then tackles one of the most complex issues in American society: the disdain that most Americans, who believe in a code of behavior and acting that never truly existed in our nation, hold for the preternatural exuberance that many African-Americans exhibit. Richard Sherman’s gleeful, braggadocio at the conclusion of the NFC title game this past January sickened many Americans, causing many to label him a thug. His confidence, his sassiness, his haughtiness, insulted many, as he spoke as if oil wells pumped in his veins. Ms. Angelou’s direct questioning of the reader demands that we tackle this important issue: why cannot some African-Americans express their unabashed joy with living and accomplishing? Why does our joy have to be expressed in a way that isn’t necessarily the way we want to share our feelings? Is that a reason to tread us in the dirt, to write us down with bitter, twisted lies?
The narrator ascends must higher than dust, now evoking the candles that shine in our skies during the day and the evening, connecting the strength of the narrator’s ascent to planets, stars, seasons, oceans, and universal matters. The determination of this narrator is more than a personal expression of self; rather, that courage, her courage, our courage, is universal in its willingness to be greater than the people who seek to discourage, damage, and destroy. The defeat of one is not the defeat of all: the rising of all together transcends the destruction of some, the stumbling of one.
In rising, we uplift one another. In falling, we create more opportunities to rise. The narrator in the next stanza questions those who seek to lessen people. The tension between standing strong and rising in some stanzas, as in the previous stanza, wrestles with the hurtfulness described in stanzas like this one. Not only is this stanza defined by the hurtfulness of someone who might be mean spirited, but also, by the sincere questioning of why someone would want to crush the spirit of someone else. The following stanza rises again, as the narrator acknowledges her confidence, her haughtiness, even, which allows her to laugh, to embrace life. The violence of the following stanza describes the hateful, harmful actions of an angry person or an insecure nation, determined to keep down the narrator: shooting, cutting, and killing aim, like a scythe to cut down physically, but the narrator, able to rise above, climbs, like air, ethereally.
Again, with even more confidence, the narrator almost taunts the reader, relishing in her sassiness, her haughtiness, and now her sexiness. Each one of these words has negative connotations, but the narrator embraces them, celebrating them, and sharing them with glee, centering this stanza at the enticing sexiness of her loins hiding diamonds. The meeting of her thighs becomes a mysterious, mystical place that attracts and repels, that forbids and forebodes, that tantalizes and disgusts. A place of treasure and pleasure, of desire and of fire, of wealth and of stealth, that remains unavailable, inaccessible, unattainable, and yet so desirable, all at once.
With the last paragraph, the narrator discards her playfulness and her anger that have predominated and alternated the poem and dresses herself in the mantle of high-minded historian, sharing a valuable lesson and a reason why she will continue to rise. A litany of crimes against humanity are noted before disappearing as the strength of the narrator’s history and her connection to mother earth allow her to be, simultaneously, the hope and the dream of our weary, scarred-filled past. The last three lines sing and celebrate who we are and our collective ability to rise, to rise, to rise.
Even with Sister Maya Angelou’s death, we are poised to continue rising, continue filling buckets, continuing feeding the good wolf, continue reaching new heights. Thank you, Maya Angelou, for these beautiful words.