The Theme of Overcoming Adversity in Maya Angelou’s “Still i Rise” and Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and “Dreams”

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Poetry of Voice, Society & Culture

When I hear the stories of my grandmother, the things that strike my core the most is to hear the oppression and hate that she faced. Could you imagine? You would never know that she experienced these painful moments by looking at the joyful expressions displayed across this woman’s face. The poetry of Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes is something that generations grew up with because, although it was written in trying times, there is a sense of pride and strength that that is consistently exhibited in their works. The poems that will be looked at in this essay are “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou and “I, Too, Sing America”/”Dreams” by Langston Hughes. The development of themes for these poems were based on the determination it takes to overcome adversity. The themes that are striking in these poems are strength, hope, resilience and overcoming challenges.

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Maya Angelou was one of America’s leading poets with multiple talents. Not only was she an amazing poet but she was also a historian, playwright, dancer, stage/screen producer, a civil rights activist and much more. (“Maya Angelou”) Her memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” made history as the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. As an African-American woman, she experienced racial discrimination firsthand as well as sexual assault. (“Maya Angelou”). She is an example of a strong, inspirational woman, rising from the ashes of spirit-shattering catastrophes.

For Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise” is a thematic poem about the strength and empowerment of a person during a certain era and even to this day. There is a struggle to overcome prejudice as a person of color and throughout the poem, she talks about the beauty and haughtiness of the speaker, laughing in the face of injustice, seen in the second stanza:

“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.”

(Angelou)

This poem speaks about the circumstances of repeated wrongdoings that people of color face but there is always hope to cling on to. Although the poem was written during a time where there was a struggle with civil right issues, it is universal to any minority or individual that is subjected to abuse and oppression (Spacey). Any person that is looking in the face of injustice can understand the theme of the poem which is don’t give up and don’t give in. The last two stanzas help reinforce the theme of hope by “I Rise” being repeated in a mantra fashion (Spacey).

“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.”

(Angelou)

While Angelou wrote this poem about overcoming the hardships of oppression, she used her words to influence others to use their voices to encourage change, believe in themselves and stand for a better tomorrow. The theme of resilience, dignity, equality, determination and endurance resonates throughout each stanza. There is much imagery in this poem, seen in the third stanza. She compares herself to the sun and the moon that is affected by tides. This could be symbolic for rising out of oppressing situations; rising up to stand against such things.

“Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.”

(Angelou)

The next poet, Langston Hughes, is also an important literary figure in poetry. (“Langston Hughes). Like Maya Angelou, Hughes recorded the nuances of black life and its frustrations (“Langston Hughes”). He was the first African-American to make a living solely on his earnings from his writings and lectures. He brought a variety of colorful experience to his writing since he lived in six different cities before he was twelve years old. However, living in the 1920s is a lot different than living in the times that we are in now.

In one of his poems named “I, Too, Sing America”, there is the theme of overcoming the challenges of racial injustice and how they will not define him, just like “Still I Rise”. Hughes makes the argument that he is just as American as any other person. It is also possible to say that this poem is a response to “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman, who is one of Hughes’ influences. In the opening lines of “I, Too, Sing America”, the word choice is significant because the first word being “I” urges others to recognize his existence. The fact that Hughes’ use “too” in the poem creates the idea that he is overlooked and not included in the song of America that was written by Walt Whitman. The opening of “I, Too” demands recognition and the need to be included in America’s song. This poem embodies the history during that particular era during the early 20th century while Jim Crow laws were in effect throughout the South. The speaker of this poem refused to let the mistreatment and segregation define him. Even though the poem is only eighteen lines, it displays the themes about the culture, society, and history of that time. It also shows Hughes’ point of view of the complex pain he had to endure from that complicated relationship with America.

In the poem “Dream”, the message and theme may not openly discuss racial struggles like the first two poems, but it is still very relatable and connected to them. “Dreams” by Langston Hughes speaks about the hard struggles of life and personifies this as a broken-winged bird trying to fly and a frozen field. Even though this bird is faced with the challenges of flying, Hughes encourages readers to hold on to the dreams, hopes, goals, and desires because, without them, we have nothing to look forward to. Although the poem is only two stanzas, it says a lot with so little words.

“Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.”

(Hughes)

The first line states the purpose of the poem which is “Hold fast to dreams”. The theme of this poem is about not giving up on what you want in this life. You “hold fast to dreams” and never let them go because if you do, life will be unfulfilling. Where would Maya Angelou be if she let the oppression get to her and she didn’t laugh in the face of adversity? She held on to her dreams and did not let them go. The first stanza reflects on the death of dreams when they are put into an “if” scenario. The speaker indicates that dreams do not have die since they can be taken care of if held onto. The second stanza The theme in “Dreams” is shown through figures of speech or metaphors. “Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly” – Hughes compares not following your hopes and dreams to living a life like a broken-winged bird which could be an unfulfilled, unhappy road.

The most interesting things I found about “Still I Rise, “I, Too, Sing America” and “Dreams” are the impact that these writings may have had in someone’s life. Listening to the effect that Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou had on my great-grandmother and my grandmother made me realize the encouragement that is woven into their words. These writers not only inspired people of color for decades but anyone who felt like they did not belong in America’s grand plan. These poems stuck with me more than any other poems that we read because I felt more connected to them because of the impact and history that they are connected to. Every poem has a background or history but the history of these particular poems are rooted in my own life chronicles.

Works Cited

  • Angelou, Maya. “Poetry of Voice and Society and Culture.” Poems for ENG-230, p. 42.
  • Hughes, Langston. “Poetry of Voice and Society and Culture.” Poems for ENG-230, p. 41.
  • “Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/langston-hughes.
  • “Maya Angelou.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 27 Feb. 2018, www.biography.com/people/maya-angelou-9185388.
  • Spacey, Andrew. “Analysis of Poem ‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 7 Mar. 2018, owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-Of-Still-I-Rise-By-Maya-Angelou.
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The Theme of Overcoming Adversity in Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" and Langston Hughes's "I, Too" and "Dreams". (2022, Dec 12). Retrieved February 4, 2023 , from
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