When Maya Angelou died Wednesday at age 86, she left behind a legacy of resilience. The Jim Crow South – which raised and shaped her – held terrors so fathomless as to render anyone’s capacity for love inert. But hers survived; it even flourished.
Documents of her struggle spoke to generations of admirers, yet despite their universality, they stayed rooted in singularities unique to her existence: Always distinctly black, and impossible to separate from her womanhood.
Perhaps no greater testament to this exists than her 1978 poem “Still I Rise”:
“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 backyard.
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.
These stanzas breathe with the brutalities leveled against black women as part of American routine. The ability to “rise,” repeatedly, from such depths was never a given, but the fruit of tremendous inner strength – something Angelou possessed in spades.
“Still I Rise” is an obstinate celebration. Like much of her work, it is woven through with the language of levitation, and the potent metaphor of the caged bird. Originally a hat tip to ideas expressed in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy,” this trope became Angelou’s calling card, recurring in her poem “Caged Bird,” her 1969 memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her autobiography A Song Flung Up in Heaven (2002).
For black people, it was a metaphor rooted in identification. The potent imagery of bloodstained wings beating against the “cruel bars” of captivity captured the arresting power of racism, not just in America, but worldwide. Its influence was felt as far as South Africa, where Nelson Mandela chose “Still I Rise” as his 1994 inauguration poem.
But the desire for freedom has always been a staple of Angelou’s output. It goes back to her childhood, when a tragic and defining experience reshaped her life: At age 7, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend.
When she told her family, the man was tried and convicted, but he turned up dead a few days later – a death Angelou believed was caused by her words. “I thought my voice had killed the man,” she explained. “And I thought if I spoke, my voice might just go out and kill anybody, randomly, and I stopped speaking for six years. So I learned to read and I read every book I could find. And I memorized.”
When she spoke again, words had assumed a newly liberating place of power. But more than that, they formed the foundation for a life dedicated to the rhetoric and practice of freedom, and the empowerment of others.
In many ways, her experiences of violence and abuse are deeply entrenched in the narrative of black America, especially black womanhood. Her ability to detail these experiences with such lyricism have made her a legend. But so has her capacity to love, her willingness to forgive and overcome. Taken as a whole, they constitute a legacy that won’t soon be forgotten by anyone whose life she has touched.
The message of “Still I Rise” is especially important in a social environment where violence against women remains pervasive, and where racial inequalities relentlessly poison the status quo. Although it speaks to systemic problems more broadly, the poem also emphasizes the individual strength needed to rise above these efforts to oppress, obscure and dehumanize.
In today’s America, it’s an important message to hear. And what better way to remember such an iconic and important figure.