In 1978, although women were being given more rights than they had before, they were still being denied some of the basic liberties that would make them equal to males. Just a few examples of this inequality include the Associated Press being found guilty of discriminating against women and Naomi Hames circumnavigating the world alone but not being able to become a part of the Circumnavigators Club because of her gender. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau published a report in 1978 that revealed that women were still being paid less than males (“Feminist Chronicles”).
Although women were trying to break out of the restrictions society had placed on them, it was still very difficult to do so. One poet who did not let these injustices stop her was Maya Angelou, a woman who achieved many great things in her lifetime. She was associated with the White House, involved in the Hollywood film industry, worked with Dr. King, and most importantly, was a celebrated writer and poet (“Maya Angelou”).Order now
Angelou’s most prominent poem “Still I Rise,” published in 1978, specifically discusses her gendered experience in life since Angelou makes herself the speaker in the poem (Angelou). She talks about the ways in which she prevails above all of the discrimination she has faced and can still live a confident, happy life. In “Still I Rise,” Angelou uses her unique life experiences to provide a gender-specific representation of females’ nonconformist lives as they ignore the societal standards placed upon them by men. Angelou uses language and structures that serve to prove to the reader that the speaker will prevail over all of the gender norms she is expected to follow.
By talking through the first-person point of view, the speaker is able to directly confront the reader about the ways in which they have contributed to the oppression and undermining of the speaker, but also all females in general. The main way in which she does this is by posing questions that directly address “you,” who can also be interpreted as the reader. The very first questions the speaker asks are “Does my sassiness upset you? / Why are you beset with gloom?” and she continues to pose questions in this manner, asking the reader why they are offended by her characteristics and traits, most of which portray her as a confident and independent woman (4-5). By using the word “you” in all of her questions, the speaker personally urges the reader to think about why they feel negative emotions whenever they see a woman like her succeed instead of being held back by society’s expectations.
As a result, the speaker not only shows that she is resisting the societal norms placed around women but also subtly demonstrates to the reader that they are wrong for thinking that they can keep on oppressing her. Therefore, the speaker’s goal by speaking in the first-person point of view is to place responsibility, as well as a sense of guilt, upon the readers so that they know that they play a large role in discriminating against women. She skillfully incorporates this into the poem in a way that is meant to help the readers realize their wrongdoings without directly accusing them. Because of this, it is safe to assume that her target audience is the male population. In fact, she wants to prove to males that they do not have the power to dictate her entire life or control her actions; instead, they must watch as she defies them and creates her own successes in spite of them.
Another manner in which Angelou lets the speaker prove her worth is through the use of imagery to metaphorically represent the ways in which her speaker breaks away from the restrictive societal expectations placed upon her. In the poem, Angelou uses familiar images like “dirt” and “air” in order to represent emotions like happiness and triumph rather than just stating these sentiments outright (4, 24). She also outlines specific scenarios in the poem, which to the speaker, represent the success she is able to achieve now that she is done listening to what others have to say about how she should live her life. For example, after asking the reader, “Does my haughtiness offend you?” the speaker explains,
“Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.” (17-20).
To her, having a personal gold mine is representative of success, specifically financial success. She uses this image in order to explain that it does not matter to her whether or not she offends her reader by rebelling against their expectations since she is happy in her own way. This image is also one that she assumes is quite understandable to the reader.
In this stanza, specifically, when one imagines a gold mine, they automatically connect it to the idea of wealth. Therefore, through her choice of images, Angelou writes using words that she knows her reader will understand and draw the same connections from as she did while writing it. As a result, her use of imagery also serves to provide a sense of relatability to the reader. Even though her target audience has had a different experience in life than her, the images she chooses to use in the poem are ordinary so that they are recognizable and comprehensible for everyone. By using common images to depict a larger meaning, Angelou gives the words in the poem deeper meanings.
In one instance, the speaker describes herself as being “a black ocean, leaping and wide” (33). Without the context of this poem, a black ocean is a seemingly simple image. However, when read in the poem, this line has a much more significant message. Here, rather than urging the reader to imagine an actual ocean, Angelou brings up many different connotations. By using the word, “black,” she makes a reference to the speaker’s race, and by describing the ocean as “leaping and wide,” she is actually describing the speaker’s characteristics of being unafraid to leap and take chances (33). Therefore, although Angelou’s use of words seems simple, it portrays a more detailed meaning of how the speaker is able to surmount gender expectations and live her life the way she sees fit.
Lastly, Angelou uses repetition in order to emphasize the poem’s main theme of triumph by including the phrase “I rise or “I’ll rise” in 5 out of the 9 stanzas in the poem, as well as in the title. In stanzas 1, 3, and 6, where the phrase first appears, “I’ll rise” is written at the very end of the stanza. In each of these stanzas, the speaker discusses different ways in which she’s been oppressed, but instead of continuing this theme in the last line, she chooses to say the words, “I’ll rise.”
Although she has been through difficult times of low self-confidence and has been viewed as subordinate, she does not let it stop her and instead empowers herself by saying, “I’ll rise.” However, when the phrase is mentioned in stanzas 8 and 9, it appears to be repeated several more times than it had been before; stanza 8 contains the phrase twice while it is repeated 5 times in stanza 9. In stanza 8, the speaker explains how she is able to “rise” from a past of racial oppression and in stanza 9, which is the last stanza of the poem, she concludes by looking forward to a bright and happy future.
This stanza also contains the last three lines of the poem, which are “I rise / I rise / I rise”, meaning the poem both begins (in the title) and ends with the words, “I rise” (41-43). Because the phrase is repeated so often in the poem, it is the one line that sticks in the reader’s head after they have read the poem, causing it to resonate with them.
Whether or not they remember anything else from the poem, they are bound to remember that the narrator ‘rose’ simply as a result of the intentional repetition that Angelou chooses to use. Therefore, Angelou ensures that her reader knows what she is trying to convey with the poem and that they subconsciously realize why she uses repetition. She makes sure to use a phrase that not only embodies the speaker’s experience and emotions but also reflects the message of the poem.
Through her writing, Maya Angelou is able to subvert gender stereotypes and demonstrate to her readers that she will not be held back by these sexist expectations. She uses a variety of literary techniques to achieve this point, including writing through the first-person point of view and incorporating imagery and repetition in the poem. By using these methods, she is able to metaphorically convey how she resists the gender roles placed upon her. Although the experiences and emotions in the poem seem very personal to Angelou herself, her work can be adapted to fit many women’s lives at the time.
During the 1970s, when the poem was written, women were still being discriminated against because of their gender. They were not given equal opportunities in the professional world and were still heavily burdened by the stereotypes surrounding their gender. As a result, their accomplishments were diminished and they were pressured into becoming the image of a woman that men expected them to be. Therefore, by writing this poem, Angelou was able to voice many women’s feelings at the time. She was an important advocate for all women and took risks to put into words what others might not have been able to.