You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
And rise, Maya Angelou did. She wrote this stanza in 1978 during one of her most prolific writing periods. She had already published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of six biographies. And, Maya was angry.
Photo credit: Clinton Foundation
Her life was rooted in racial discrimination, sexual abuse, and violence. She felt broken and restless.
Before Maya became the storied poet, activist, and writer we admire, she moved from place to place and hopped from job to job.
Along the way, Maya danced, sang, wrote, and got to work as the first Black female director. This teenage mother also stripped car paint, danced at nightclubs, and worked as a kitchen cook. After trying on a marriage that didn’t fit, she divorced and moved about from Missouri to California, Arkansas to New York, and Cairo to Ghana before returning home to New York.
When Maya wrote those words from the opening poem, And Still I Rise, she exposed the depths of her despair:
“I didn’t see how the assassination of Malcolm [X], the Watts riot, the breakup of a love affair, then [the assassination of Dr.] Martin [Luther] King [Jr.], how I could get all that loose with something uplifting in it.”
But Maya never gave up despite the feelings she had, feeling we all have. We know the panic of losing control and the anger that can set in like large waves and small doses. It keeps coming, especially when we have time to breathe.
The spirit behind And Still I Rise is layered with meaning even though Maya personalized it with her own experience and the history of slavery in America. It speaks to shared experiences that hold us back and prevent hoping and happiness. The body of Maya’s work resonates with so many people who struggle to overcome pain and to believe that change is possible if we just rise up.
Maya changed her heart and others, over the years. Like Josephine and many women and men from the past and present, Maya refused to be segregated, delegated and obligated. She got up and got on with life.
Nowhere is this more evident than President Bill Clinton’s Inaugural Address on January 20, 1993. Maya’s poem, Pulse of a Nation, is a reminder of America’s history and its greatness. The dream is not gone because it will always be rooted in nature – we are dreamers and we are free to dream every time we rise.
We cannot measure the beating of our hearts by the things left undone or the challenges that wait. Instead:
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
To view the lyrics of Maya Angelou’s poem, click here.
To see Maya delivering the poem at President Clinton’s Inauguration: