Both Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” (1978) and Solange’s song “Don’t Touch my Hair” (2016) illustrate different stages in the African-American struggle with otherization of their identity. “Still I Rise” iterates many examples of how African-Americans have been oppressed by the dominant white culture, punctuating each example with their ability to overcome each, while “Don’t touch My Hair” develops an extended metaphor between the curiosity and invasiveness of white people wishing to touch black hair and their objectification of black people and towards their feelings and lack of respect for their identity. Both poems employ repetition and a direct dialogue with the dominant white culture to portray different aspects of their centuries-long striving towards equality from slavery and oppression.
Both “Still I Rise” (1978) and “Don’t Touch My Hair” (2016) make use of voice to convey their messages of resistance against the different forms of oppression offered by the the dominant white culture (hereafter referred to as DWC) as described in the poems. The voices in both poems are remarkable in that they both address the DWC directly, referring to it in both poems as the “you” with whom the narrator is directly speaking. While the ‘You”of the earlier poem is repeated stridently at the beginnings and ending of lines to punctuate the author’s theme, the “You” of the later poem is the implied “you” of commands, as in “[You] don’t touch my hair.” In both poems, the voice of the narrator bounces back and forth between directly engaging the dominant white culture with a critique and reprimand, and either reflecting in a kind of soliloquy (“Still I Rise”) or addressing an imagined circle of listeners of fellow African-Americans, who understand the speaker’s concerns.
While both poems are thematically concerned with serious injustices in African-Americans’ treatment, there does seem to be some progress in empowerment in the voice. The 1978 poem challenges the DWC to reflect on its motivations for several instances of oppression, but the other, which was written 35 years later, assertively rebukes the DWC for its infringement on personal space in trying to touch hair as a infringement on identity. The author do this to not only focus the reader’s attention on their criticism of the injustices that there cultures have been served, but on the buoyancy of African American Identity and their ability to survive.The powerful echoes of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech (1963), which established repetition as a central trademark of African-American elocution, are heard in both poems. Repetition in these poems provides a powerful musical cadence that leaves thematic points ringing in the listener’s ears thereby leading them to ponder about the poems ideas. “In Still I rise. Maya Angelou uses a complex cycle of repeated accusations (“You May____”), interrogations, “Does My ______?,” and affirmations “Still I Rise” to tell the centuries-old story of African -American relations with the DWC, each repetition hammering in the renewed frustrations of a different generation in the same struggle. “Don’t Touch my Hair,” on the other hand, repeats the stern admonition, “Don’t Touch” to the DWC to treat the identity of the narrator with more respect, the repetition itself suggesting the listener’s difficulty in understanding what is being asked. The aspects of black identity the DNC listers are being asked to respect are enumerated in the various aspects of the extended metaphor being drawn by Solange.
In both poems, the repetition not only serves to leave listeners with ideas they must contemplate, but also exemplifies the historical frustration African-Americans have had trying to achieve equality in interracial relationships in America. While the thematic message of both poems is dark and disappointing, a thread of hope may be found in the contrast between both poems, written in different stages of that struggle, in that the narrator seems to have advanced from a stymied individual who can only cite her race’s ability to overcome as way to combat injustice, versus the stronger and more assertive voice who is able to command her oppressors to treat her with respect. Only the future of interracial relations and poetry’s evolving story will tell whether that voice has been heard. In conclusion, both poems exemplify different techniques of resistance against a Dominant White Culture. While African Americans have been one of the most marginalized groups in American culture, the time period between the two has evolved to where marked improvement can be found. A group that has been so manically oppressed in America has gone on to produce some of the best masterpieces of the 20th century and that is a victory by itself.