Maya Angelou: The hope and Dream of the Slave
Still I Rise (Maya Angelou, 1978)
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.
Still I Rise, written by Maya Angelou (1978) deals with the opression of an individual. The lyrical subject in this poem speaks to someone telling him that regardless of the opression, the lies, the disregard and the maltreatment received, the lyrical I still finds the ability to do against this and to strive. In further examination, one can see that the lyrical I is a female. This is due to the words used in this poem. The words sassiness, haughtiness and sexiness for instance, are words that are used in the context of female attributes. Furthermore, the fact that the lyrical I speaks of its thighs which is emphasized with the image that diamonds meet at its melting is another indication for the femininity of the lyrical subject, because the description of thighs is generally used in the context of femininity. The lyrical I in addition can be placed in two contexts. The subject’s explicit claim of of beings the “hope and the dream of the slave”, indicates that this poem can be placed in the time of slavery in the United States. It could thus be interpreted in such a manner that the lyrical I, holds a monologue, addressing her slaveowner.
The content of the poem however, could also be put into another context. Perhaps we are dealing with an African American woman during the time where racial discrimination was prominent and explicit hence the Civil Rights Movement (Bell&Nkomo, 1998). Nevertheless, in both cases we are dealing with a black, woman, which learns to withstand oppression during times in which
political institutions practically make it impossible.
When inspecting this poem one can see the link it has to the aspect of power and democracy. This is due to the fact that the poem takes the reader on a trip back into time either when slavery was legal or the political emancipation of the African American has not occurred yet. During the 19th century, slavery was still legal in the United States of America. Here a slave was considered the property of the slaveholder. The slaveholder then had as a responsibility to hold the slave in a manner that it would be able to work appropriately (food, clothing and rest).
The dialectics of property and power is very obvious here. The more one owns, the more powerful one is. This is also reminiscient of Baldwins (2006) statement that power can be measured as in the sense of fungibility; meaning that it is measured by the power resources such as time or money. The fact that one could hold slaves meant that one had both time as well as money. One had money in the sense that one had the financial means to hold a slave appropriately. Held’s (2006) elaboration on ancient Greece clearly shows us that the fact that slave holders posessed slaves, granted them the time for other things such as political participation. This can also be applied to slave holding in the United States.
One can also recognize an interrelation of the power over and power to concept by Scott (2001).When applying this it is clear that the slave holder or the political institution is exercising power over the slave in the poem, when “shooting with words, cutting with eyes or killing with hatefullness”. Nevertheless, the lyrical I find the power to rise in this case and stand above all of this oppression. Here the lyrical I when “rising” makes statements, which can once more strongly be related to the fungility power of Baldwin. In this poem the rising of the lyrical I constantly stands in close relation to wealth or possession. The oil wells, pumping in the living room, the gold mines in the backyard as well as the diamonds at the meeting pot of the thighs, are all associated with overcoming the power of the opressor. The sassiness, the haughtiness as well as the sexiness are all closely linked to this. Although the subject of the poem here speaks about a certain mindset that is particularly high and supports it in striving, it is a mindset of behaving as if one posessed all these riches in order to not only have the power to overcome, but also to provoke and upset the object of this poem.
The link that can be made here in regards of the aspect of democracy is that everything the lyrical I experiences, is happening in the United States of America, which claims to be a democratic nation state. The Declaration of Independence, which holds the fact that all men are created equal to be an inalienable right, causes the fact that there was slavery or racial discrimination to be contradictory to their values. If all men are created equal then how is it possible that some are slaves, while others are not? Or that some have to sit in the back of the bus, while others are priviledged to sit in the front? The only reasonable explanation for this could the the logic Held elaborated on when speaking of slaves in Greece. Slaves in Greece were not eligible for the enjoyment of what Pericles states to be that power lies in the hands of the whole people and that everyone is equal before the law, because they were not considered to be citizens of the Greek state. As these priviledges were only granted to citizens, the slaves were then self evidently excluded from these rights. This could be the case in the earlier United States as well. Democracy according to Held entailed liberty as well as equality under the law.
Thus logically deducing, slaves in the 19th century and blacks later on were not to be regarded as “men”. If they had been, they would have been treated otherwise –frankly speaking, they would not have been slaves or made to use different bathrooms than the whites. They would not have been the exception to the rule. Hence, the democratic ideal of the United States government stood in contrast with its actions of slave holding and discrimination. This was why slavery in the end was abolished by Abraham Lincoln not after tough ongoing debates and why the Civil Rights Movement did not give up fighting for their right to be regarded equal. Martin Luther Kings’s statement of having a dream that soon all men will be regarded equal clearly showed that the US was not that evolved yet and so does Maya Angelou’s poem.
Her poem, in which she perfectly combined the experience of inspiration, agony and sheer will power, contains very strong connections to the notion of democracy and power. The lyrical I is a minority in threefold manners: she is a slave, she is black and she is a woman, which at the time was far from emancipation. Yet she rises like dust and air, self evidently she walks, dances and laughs. Yet she is the black ocean that lives beyond the mentioned nights of terror and fear.
Her poem shows the powerplay of a seemingly stronger individual to a seemingly weaker one (slave holder vs. slave), of a seemingly stronger majority and a seemingly weaker minority (whites vs. blacks) and of a seemingly stronger institution (or political system) and a seemingly weaker individual. The lyrical I in her poem clearly shows that apparently not every power relation is what it seems as towards the end of the poem she reaches her climax of emphasizing how she has the power to rise, despite power distribution; ending the poem by saying it three times in a row.
Angelou, M. (1978). Still IRise. New York: Random House
Baldwin, D. A. (2006). Power and International Relations. In W. Carlsnaess, TH. Risse, & B.A Simonds (Eds.), Handbook of International Relations. London: Sage
Scott, J. (2001). Patterns of Power. In idem, Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Held, D. (2006). Models of Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press