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Still I Rise

Multimedia, oil, wax medium, acrylic, with cockleburs, on panel, 48 x 48 x 2, 2021

This multimedia portrait captures the essence of poet, memoirist and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou as a young woman and activist, sporting an afro. Cockleburs* are used to shape her coiffure; the afro was, and still is a symbol of Black pride, and a celebration of the beauty of our hair in its natural state.  

The cockleburs have been embellished with red, white and blue paint in the shape of the American flag, symbolizing America’s complicity in white supremacy in America. The rough texture and gouges in the background’s red paint symbolize Black rage over the senseless blood shed by many people of color.

Maya is wearing a velvety, black sweater. On the sweater, the words, Still I Rise are stamped as a proud logo. The last letter E in Rise is askew; unhinged, responding to a lack of reconciliation to America’s sin of slavery. Those powerful words reference one of Maya Angelou’s most remembered poems of strength, resilience, and triumph in spite of it all:

Still I Rise – Maya Angelou

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
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise

I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

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.

* Cockleburs- Small, prickly, football- shaped spur like pods considered a weed, are commonly found in fields and pastures in agricultural areas in the US and Asia. In the South, they were commonly used as an epithet to describe African hair in its natural state or (nappy hair).

Read more on cockleburs and what they represent in Willie’s artwork.

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