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.
The first stanza draws attention to the fact that accounts of the lives of an exploited, suppressed, enslaved, racial group or community are invariably biased by colour prejudice, such a strong cultural factor in western society. The phrase, “bitter twisted lies”, actually expresses the bitterness of the poet herself. And her indomitable spirit refuses to be trod on, crushed. Like dust, it still rises.
As the poem progresses, she uses new images to assert her spirit of survival; sassiness is rudeness, a lack of respect. If a black woman’s sassiness upsets people, so be it. If it makes them gloomy, that is a victory for an oppressed group – black women. When she talks of oil wells, she is referring to access to wealth.
Her amazing self-confidence is reiterated in her psychological security reaffirmed by images of the certainty of the moon and the sun and the tides caused by the moon. The rising tide is hope springing high.
She does not lose sight of the fact that people would not like to see her so confident. ‘Broken with bowed head, and lowered eyes’ is not how people will get to see her. Nor will they see her with drooping shoulders, defeated and demoralized. She is bold, even arrogant, and can laugh as if she has goldmines in her backyard. And the wealth represented by oil wells and gold mines is not just material; it is an emotional and psychological resource, the source of strength.
All the hostility described in Stanza VI cannot upset the speaker. That there is an undeniable physical dimension to sexuality is emphasized in Stanza VII. To “dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs” is to revel in one’s sexuality rather than deny it.
From line 20 onwards the mood of the poem becomes philosophical. The brazenness is left behind. It is almost a recollection of the racial past of a whole community. The “hunts of history’s shame” refers to the horrible past of victims of the slave era – the torture, humiliation and suffering described in all slave narratives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
She talks of the pain her ancestors endured. Her own life is rooted in pain but she transcends all to stay afloat to survive; “black” in line 33 is meaningfully used. So is the image of the ocean. Significantly, the individual speaker here is herself the ocean which contains/bears the welling and swelling of the tide, rather than being lost in the ocean. Other poets often see the ocean as one of the unconquerable forces of nature. Here, the poet herself is the ocean unlimited power personified.
Another natural image which follows is that of daybreak. The night of fear and terror ends to give way to a beautiful clear day. And the poet faces this beautiful new day with ‘gifts that my ancestor’s grave’. This phrase refers to the intense racial pride in African culture and ancestry which all blacks see as a source of strength in their struggle for survival against heavy adds.
When the slaves, powerless and crushed, dreamt of a future; surely they must have dreamt and hoped for future generations free of bondage, happy and assertive. She in an ascendant mood is the fulfillment and embodiment of that imagined dream of several past generations of her ancestors.
You observe that from line 29 onwards, as the poet shifts mentally to her racial past, the rhythm of the lines becomes different. The long-drawn out suffering represented by long lines culminates in the powerful brief assertiveness expressed in the repeated use of I rise, I rise, I rise (7 times). This is reinforcement and reassertion of a triumphant self – the black poet.