Stanza One: The speaker is angry. She feels that her ancestors are being antagonized in the history books and that her generation is being tied to this history and hampered in their efforts to unshackle themselves from the slavery of the past. She is challenging her oppressors and telling them boldly that they will not oppress her the way they did her ancestors. No matter what they try to do, she will resist.
Stanza Two: The narrator is asking questions and is bewildered by the oppressor’s mood. However, her tone is provocative and sarcastic rather than naive. She knows exactly why her oppressor is gloomy, even if she is inquiring about it. She is mocking the object of the poem by highlighting how her empowered walk must be depressing for him. She is not weighed down by his oppression at all. She is elated to be the “sassy” woman she is and will strut before him with pride.
Stanza Three: The speaker compares herself to timeless natural elements, suggesting that her strength is as predictable and eternal as the “moons,” “suns,” and “tides.” No one should question whether she can conquer obstacles—she always will, just as the sun and the moon rise and the tides of the ocean ebb and flow. In the same way that people raise their hopes for good things in life, she will also rise. The speaker is unstoppable, and her courage and determination are as inevitable as the passage of time marked by the motions of natural elements.
Stanza Four: In this stanza, the poet asks what her oppressors wish to happen. The tone is somber. She asks if they would enjoy seeing her as a broken spirit, her head weighed down by sadness and pain and her eyes lowered as if she must not look at her oppressor directly. The stanza paints a devastating image of a desperate person, with shoulders hunched and a body weakened from cries that come from a tortured soul.
Stanza Five: The tone of the poem picks up again, as the speaker reverts to a confident and proud attitude. The speaker once again provokes the oppressor ("you") in a sarcastic tone, describing his discontent on seeing her—and fellow black people—defiant and proud of their identities. The speaker makes a reference to wealth yet again, this time referring to the way in which she laughs. She is full of joy, as if she had gold mines in her own backyard.
Stanza Six: In this stanza, the speaker outlines different actions that her oppressor might take. They are all metaphors for violent behavior, conveyed through the ways in which a person might look at or speak to another person. The tone is confrontational and direct, addressing the "you" repeatedly. Regardless of any actions the oppressor may take, the speaker still “rises” above it all at the end.
Stanza Seven: This stanza addresses the speaker’s gender, providing the strongest evidence that she is indeed female. The provocative tone illustrates the speaker as a sensual creature, offering a deeply sexual connotation for the first time in the poem. The image of wealth is portrayed again, depicting a free, powerful female who dances as if she had “diamonds” between her thighs.
Stanza Eight: The meter of the poem shifts in this stanza, as does the way in which it is written. This stanza does not interrogate the oppressor, instead taking a calmer tone that sounds like a prayer or a meditation. In the previous stanzas, the speaker has been firing questions at her oppressor and essentially putting his behavior on trial. In this stanza, the speaker appears to calm down and stir up the energy and faith needed to move forward in life, past the pain to which she has been referring throughout the poem. She is a “black ocean” of strength, withstanding the tides that would otherwise knock her down.
Stanza Nine: The speaker is taking a clear step forward, leaving behind the terrors of the past. The daybreak will bring sunshine and hope and clarity. The poet affirms her intention to rise above the past and fulfill the dreams and hopes of her slave ancestors. Their pain and suffering drives her to meet her full potential in life, which they were unable to do themselves. The speaker has every intention of writing each chapter of her life and not letting oppressors write that history for her. She will not be held back by what the oppressors have done to her ancestors.
The speaker’s angry tone is evidenced at the outset with the use of words such as “bitter” and “twisted.” While the speaker uses singular personal pronouns in the first person throughout the poem such as “me,” and “I,” her references to her ancestors imply that she is also speaking on behalf of other black people. She believes that her people have been depicted dishonestly and cruelly throughout history.
Immediately, the speaker addresses the object of the poem, an unspecified “you.” As the poem continues, the “you” comes into focus as an oppressor—a singular pronoun that stands in for the larger history of white oppression of black people. The speaker creates an indelible image of black people being “trod” in dirt—they are not merely stepped on, but trampled on. They have been repeatedly dehumanized by others. However, no matter how much the oppressors try to squash or bury the speaker (and other black people), she will “rise” like dust. She will essentially rise above oppression and defy her oppressors. The speaker is therefore not only angry, but confident. She is channeling her rage and finding an empowered way out of it.
In the second stanza, the speaker questions if her “sassiness”—depicting her bold attitude—upsets her oppressor. However, her tone suggests confidence. She does not seem to care whether this sassiness upsets him and seems even amused by it, as evidenced by the powerful last line of the stanza. Furthermore, the use of the word “sassiness” is the first time in the poem that a female speaker is insinuated, as this word is usually applied to women. The speaker is therefore fighting a battle against racism and sexism, as she wants to rise above the pain that black women in particular have experienced.
The speaker continues by acknowledging and questioning the “gloom” of her oppressor. It may seem at first that she cannot understand why her oppressor feels this way. However, by immediately following this question with a statement, she appears to answer her own inquiry. In fact, she is not at all wondering if this gloom is a result of her walking as if she has “oil wells pumping” in her living room. She is proclaiming with pride that this walk is indeed the reason for the gloom. Her oppressor is miserable to see her walking around with the confidence of a wealthy person. Her wealth lies in her confidence and strength, and these qualities are pouring out of her like oil out of a well.
The celestial references in the third stanza give a timelessness to the meaning of the poem. The speaker suggests that her hope is as eternal as the moon and the sun. Just as the sun and the moon rise and set according to the tides, the speaker’s hopes rise like a tidal wave.
By extension, one can say that black people’s hopes and determination are likewise eternal—her people will fight for their rights until the end of time. The word “certainty” used to describe the tides drives home the point that their rising above oppression will continue in a repeated cycle. The speaker may also represent the hopes of all oppressed peoples, conveying a universal message of hope and resilience.
The fourth stanza elaborates on the characteristics of oppressed people, regardless of the reason for their oppression. Universally, oppressed people may be described as “broken,” as their patience and resilience are often tested. They are often left emotionally and physically shattered, if not dead. The “bowed head” and “lowered eyes” imply sadness and even shame. One might suggest that being beaten down so much even causes self-loathing, as if the oppressed person comes to believe that he or she deserves such treatment.
The image of shoulders “falling down like teardrops” due to weakness suggest the collapse of the body and the human spirit. The oppressed person has become so miserable that her cries come from deep within the soul, fatiguing her body and spirit weakening her emotionally, mentally, and physically all at once. The speaker is describing the way in which misogynists and racists would like to see her.
The fifth stanza once again shows the speaker taunting the oppressor, in a way that parallels the second stanza. The use of the word “haughtiness” pairs well with the “sassiness” of stanza 2, as the term implies a proud attitude and an air of invincibility. One might even say that the speaker is proud to the point of arrogance, as she wonders if she is offending the oppressor. The word “offend” is an ironic choice, since the speaker—as an oppressed person—is the offended party. In this stanza, she turns the tables on the oppressor and does the offending herself. The second line rubs in the fact that the oppressor “takes it awful hard” when she is haughty, which is exactly how she must feel when she is herself oppressed.
The last two lines of the fifth stanza, just as in the second stanza, once again portray the speaker as carefree and jubilant, as if she were wealthy. This time, she is laughing heartily as if she had gold mines in her backyard. The speaker may be oppressed, but her confidence is like gold. It gives her a wealth that no one can take away.
The metaphors in the sixth stanza are very vivid and suggest violence without any mention of it actually happening. The speaker suggests a series of actions—hypothetical or real—that the oppressor might take, and then she proceeds to resist it all by standing her ground. If the oppressor “shoots” her with harsh words—rather than a gun—she will still overcome. If the oppressor “cuts” her with his eyes—rather than a knife—she will still overcome. Even if the oppressor succeeds at “killing” her with his hatefulness, she will still win in the end. Her determination is so powerful that even feeling dead inside from all the hate cannot stop her from rising above the racism and prejudice in her life. They may harm her emotionally or even physically, but they cannot kill her spirit.
The seventh stanza does not appear to address race at all. Rather, it focuses on the speaker as a liberated, sensual woman. The first line asks the oppressor if her “sexiness” upsets him. The use of this word implies that the speaker is a woman, and she is once again taunting the oppressor. This time, she taunts him with a dance. The image of dancing suggests freedom and a carefree spirit, as well as beauty and sexuality. The speaker is self-aware and knows that she embodies these qualities. She is also aware of the oppressor’s shock and discomfort at this revelation—as the oppressor is likely “surprised” to see the speaker in this way.
She wonders if the fact she is sexy as well as accomplished is more offensive to her detractors than it would be if she was either sexy or accomplished. There is also an inherent unspoken question that wonders whether oppressors are angry with her because they find her sexy and attractive and do not desire those feelings. There is a sexual connotation to the simile she uses in this stanza as she mentions the "diamonds at the meeting of her thighs.” The diamonds—like oil and gold—represent the wealth of her spirit.
The eighth stanza is rich with imagery. The speaker rises “out of the huts of history’s shame,” making a possible reference to huts in which slaves were once housed. She is emerging from that sad place. Alternatively, the huts may symbolize the idea of hiding one’s shame away in an enclosed space. The huts, figuratively speaking, house the shame of history—white oppression of black people. The image evokes slavery.
The speaker then lifts herself up from her ancestors’ past that is “rooted in pain.” This may be a reference to all the oppression that black people have experienced, from slavery to segregation. She will sprout new leaves, so to speak, and blossom into a stronger person. Lastly, she declares herself a “black ocean,” referencing her race and describing herself as a powerful force of nature. “Leaping and wide” parallels with the dancing image from the previous stanza, as she is again a powerful and free spirit. Just as an ocean wells and swells, so does the speaker—rising above the pain and “bearing”—or holding up—in the tide. She refuses to be knocked down by a tidal wave of her oppressors.
This stanza becomes a declaration of a move towards the future and is also the most direct reference to the slavery of the past that has been intimated earlier but never clearly stated. "History's shame" references slavery and the way in which history casts shame on those who participated in it. The term also explains why her contemporaries are trying to rewrite history in order to hide some of the events. The past "rooted in pain" references the abuses carried out and the pain caused by segregation. The poet compares herself to the ocean with its power that is not easily overcome, and refers to the entire African American community as the "black ocean" that is filled with power and might.
In the final stanza, the speaker is shedding the past by leaving behind the “nights of terror and fear.” This image may refer to many things, from slaves sleeping in fear of being tortured to slaves who tried to make their escape at night. When “daybreak” arrives, the speaker will find it “wondrously clear,” suggesting an image of peace and clarity in her life. There is hope for a new day of beauty, unmarred by fear and pain.
The speaker will bring with her the “gifts that her ancestors gave”—her strength, hope, and determination. She will not inherit their pain. She has inherited instead their powerful attributes that will carry her forward in life. By calling herself the “dream and the hope of the slave,” the speaker mentions slavery explicitly for the first time. Her ancestors had hoped for and dreamed of freedom, and she has every intention of fulfilling these ambitions. Through the repetition of “I rise” in the last three lines, the stanza takes on a powerful meditative quality that even resembles a prayer. The repetition is fitting at this point in the poem, as the previous mention of slavery conjures up an image of slaves praying and singing songs. These repeated words are an affirmation of the speaker’s intentions—a song, a meditation, a prayer, a bold declaration of hope.