You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I rise.
Maya Angelou’s well-known poem, “Still I Rise,” is a swaggering song of pride and joy in the face of a past rooted in pain, “the nights of terror and fear.” Like the hymn by James Weldon Johnson, “Lift Every Voice,” which is called “The Black National Anthem,” Angelou’s poem declares a strength and triumph in being a black woman yet fully aware of history’s violent degradation, the legacy of generational trauma. The line that Johnson’s brother set to music in 1899, “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,” recalls nothing so much as Confederate Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest’s report on the hundreds of black Union soldiers who had surrendered at Fort Pillow, Tenn., when this former slave-trader ordered them all slaughtered. The Mississippi River ran red with their blood, wrote Forrest (later founder of the KKK), daring the North to use black soldiers again.
An earlier poem that Angelou may have drawn on for the phrase “still I rise” comes from the white Quaker abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. The theme in this poem is different. It’s that the chains thrown off by Emancipation freed both black and white from a curse. During Reconstruction, young black students in a classroom in the early days of Atlanta University represented to Whittier the transformation of enslaved Man into the image of God.
Behold!—the dumb lips speaking
The blind eyes seeing!
Bones of the Prophet’s vision
Warmed into being!
The poem is called “Howard at Atlanta,” and there’s an interesting story behind it. The story is that General Oliver Otis Howard, head of the Freedman’s Bureau, was in that classroom at Atlanta University questioning the students. Howard had fought for the Union in many of the major battles of the Civil War, including the Battle of Atlanta, and had lost his right arm at the Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia. He asked the students what he should tell the youth up north about the freed slaves in the South. A young lad named Richard R. Wright, who had been freed at age 10, stood up and said to Howard, “Tell them, we’re rising.” This same Richard Wright later started a newspaper in his native Cuthbert, Ga., and moved that publication to Augusta. In 1880, he founded the first public high school for blacks in Augusta, Ware High School. This was the school that was later shut down by the white Richmond County Board of Education, leading to the lawsuit Cumming v. Board of Education of Richmond County, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1899 by ruling, 9-0, that the county had no obligation to provide secondary education for blacks. (The plaintiff “Cumming” was black, but it’s also the name of my ancestors, a prominent family in Augusta in the 19th century.) Wright, discouraged in his career as educator in Augusta, moved to Savannah to become president of Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youths (today, Savannah State University), which he served for 30 years.
Whittier, inspired by the scene of young Richard Wright addressing Gen. Howard, writes:
O black boy of Atlanta!
But half was spoken:
The slave’s chain and the master’s
Alike are broken.
The one curse of the races
Held both in tether:
They are rising,–all are rising,
The black and white together!