39 pages 1 hour read

Maya Angelou

Still I Rise

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1977

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Summary and Study Guide


Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist whose career spanned over 50 years. She published seven autobiographies, several books of poetry, and three essay collections and wrote plays, movies, and television shows. Her widely acclaimed work has received numerous awards, and Angelou has received over 50 honorary degrees. Her best known work is her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing, which focuses on her childhood up to the age of 17. Her most known poems include “Still I Rise,” “Caged Bird,” and “Phenomenal Woman.” Her poems and autobiographies are taught in schools and universities worldwide, and her work often appears on lists of banned books in the United States. Her work centers on themes like racism, identity, womanhood, family, and travel.

Though Angelou is a prolific and widely-read poet, her poetry has often been lauded more for its themes and topics rather than its poetic innovation. Her poems often depict Black beauty, describe the strength of women, and praise the human spirit while demanding social justice for all. While intensely personal and often autobiographical, Angelou’s poems often use personal experience to comment on larger social and cultural issues related to race and gender. “Still I Rise” centers on the experiences of a Black woman and her resilience in the face of racism.

Poet Biography

Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. When Angelou was three, her parents ended their marriage, and her father sent her and her brother to Stamps, Arkansas alone by train to live with their grandmother. Angelou’s grandmother’s general store allowed her to live in unusual prosperity during the Great Depression.

Angelou’s early childhood was not a stable one, as she and her brother traveled between their grandmother’s home and their mother’s home in St. Louis. During this time, Angelou’s love of books and literature blossomed while her ability to observe and listen continued to develop. At the age of 14, she and her brother moved back with their mother, this time in Oakland, California. She attended the California Labor School. At the age of 16, she became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco, a job that she wanted badly as she admired the uniforms. Three weeks after completing school, at the age of seventeen, she gave birth to her son, Clyde, later called Guy Johnson.

In 1951, Angelou married a Greek electrician and musician, Tosh Angelos. This marriage ended in 1954, and she moved to New York City in the late 1950s. Here, she found encouragement to begin writing and was particularly supported by the Harlem Writers’ Guild.

It was as a dancer that Angelou assumed her professional name. When she was dancing and singing professionally to calypso music in nightclubs in San Francisco, her managers suggested that she take on a stage name. Maya, her childhood nickname, and Angelou, based on her former married surname, became her professional name. At this time, Angelou took one of her most well-known dance roles as an ensemble member in a 1954 State Department-sponsored production of Porgy and Bess that toured Europe and Africa.

In 1961, she met South African freedom fighter Vusumzi Make, with whom she began a relationship. Make convinced Angelou to move to Cairo, where she worked as an associate editor. When the relationship ended in 1962, Angelou and her son then moved to Ghana. While in Ghana, she worked as an administrator at a university, an editor, a freelance writer, and a performer. During this time, she also became close friends with Malcolm X after a visit to the area.

Angelou returned to the US in 1965, and in 1967, she moved to New York. There, she wrote, produced, and narrated the ten-part documentary series Blacks, Blues, Black! for the precursor to PBS, the National Educational Television. At a 1968 dinner party, writer James Baldwin and a Random House editor, Robert Loomis, challenged Angelou to write a book. In response, Angelou wrote her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and published it to international acclaim in 1969. It was nominated for a National Book Award.

Angelou’s first collection of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie (1971), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Soon, she was composing music and writing articles, short stories, TV scripts, documentaries, autobiographies, and poetry. In addition, she produced plays and commenced an acting career, being nominated for a Tony for her role in Look Away. She was also named visiting professor at several universities and colleges. In 1977, Angelou appeared in a supporting role in the television mini-series Roots. Her third poetry collection, And Still I Rise, of which “Still I Rise” was a part, was published in 1978. Angelou became a professor at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem.

In 1993, Angelou recited her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton. She was the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost in 1961. As a result, her fame grew and recognition for her previous works increased while the recording of the poem won a Grammy Award. In 2011 Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Angelou died on May 28, 2014 after a series of illnesses, and, in January 2022, Angelou became the first Black woman depicted on the back of the American quarter coin.

Poem Text

Angelou, Maya. “Still I Rise.” 1978. Poetry Foundation.


“Still I Rise” is a nine stanza lyric poem written in the first person. The speaker directly addresses another person, referred to as “you,” throughout the poem.

In the first stanza, the speaker says that she will “rise” (Line 4) regardless of the other person’s hostile actions. These actions involve writing lies about the speaker and walking over the speaker “in the very dirt” (Line 3).

In the next two stanzas, the speaker asks if their “sassiness” (Line 5) bothers the other person. The speaker theorizes that this quality does cause “gloom” (Line 6) because the speaker walks as if they are rich. The speaker then asserts their “certainty” (Line 10) that they will continue to thrive in the face of adversity, just as the moon, the sun, and the tides continue to exist in nature without fail.

The speaker then suggests that the other person would like to see them “broken” (Line 13). They then describe how their body would look and move if they were behaving as expected, with “[b]owed head and lowered eyes” (Line 14) and slumped shoulders.

The next stanza challenges the image of the broken speaker. They ask if their “haughtiness offend[s]” (Line 17) the other person, taunting the other person with implications about the speaker’s own personal satisfaction and wealth.

In the sixth stanza, the speaker lists aggressive actions that the other person could aim toward the speaker. The other person could “shoot” (Line 21), “cut” (Line 22), and “kill” (Line 23) the speaker, but the speaker is certain that they will overcome this violence.

The speaker mentions one last personal trait in the next stanza: “sexiness” (Line 25). The speaker acknowledges that this characteristic may “upset you” (Line 25) because it makes evident the value the speaker holds for their body and sexuality, as if she had “diamonds / At the meeting of [her] thighs” (Lines 27-28).

The last two stanzas of the poem focus on the speaker’s ability and determination to rise above the historical trauma they have experienced. In coming “[o]ut of the huts of history’s shame” (Line 29) and “[l]eaving behind nights of terror and fear” (Line 35), the speaker becomes the “dream and hope” (Line 40) of those Black people that came before them. The speaker ends with the repetition of the phrase “I rise” (Lines 41-43), which carries the weight of both a threat and a promise.