I'm translating the following passage, which is said by a black woman living in America:

But the doctor was right: I was depressed. Like most people in my community, I had the misconception that depression was a sign of weakness, a character flaw. But I wasn't weak; I was a high achiever. I was too ashamed. I didn't think I had the right to be depressed. I had a privileged life with a loving family and a successful career. And when I thought about the unspeakable horrors that my ancestors had been through in this country so that I could have it better, my shame grew even deeper. I was standing on their shoulders. How could I let them down? I would hold my head up, put a smile on my face and never tell a soul.

I need to know what the sentence I was standing on their shoulders mean? Does it mean I had to continue the way they had started? Does it mean I had much better conditions than theirs?


5 Answers 5


It is an idiomatic expression:

stand on someone's shoulders :

benefit from the previous experience of (a predecessor in your field).

In the passage it refer to the fact that she was in a better position compared to those who came before her and had fought for civil rights.

  • At first I thought of this meaning: My ancestors had started the way of being strong and fighting against difficulties. For me, being strong and successful was the continuation of the way they'd started. Do you think this s a correct conception? Jan 15, 2019 at 12:34
  • I think the implied meaning is that she can afford a better life because of what her predecessors had gone through, as she says “so that I could have it better
    – user 66974
    Jan 15, 2019 at 12:38

Understand the literal meaning: If you and a buddy need to climb a tall wall, one of you might stand on the ground and "boost up" the other one so he can stand on your shoulders and reach the top of the wall. Once he is atop the wall he can reach down and help you up, if it's necessary for both of you to climb over.

"Standing on the shoulders" in a figurative/historical sense just implies that other people have "boosted you up", allowing you to achieve (figurative) heights (say, of scientific knowledge) you would not have otherwise achieved. (Suggested but not demanded is a motivation to then somehow help those who helped you, or help others as you were helped.)

It should be noted that there is an ironic/sarcastic variant to the expression: standing on the toes of those who came before. This is where someone achieves slightly higher accomplishments by holding down others and causing them pain.


Reread the passage and note the writer speaks of standing on ANOTHER’S shoulders. As with most axioms or folk sayings, you can visualize that. A child literally is boosted by climbing atop its parents shoulders and reaching far higher than they ever could. The underlying meaning of the passage was that this descendent of slaves rose above their suffering and due to their sacrifice experienced benefits they never attained.


Standing on one's shoulders means To make discoveries, insights, or progress due to the discoveries or previous work of those who have come before.

  • Welcome to EL&U! Please provide sources, such as a dictionary, in your answer to improve its quality. Jan 15, 2019 at 14:07

Note that the writer is explaining how embrassed he or she was to be diagnosed with a mental health problem, depression, when thinking of all the benefits he or she had in life, especially in contrast to the great physical suffering of their enslaved ancestors. The writer tries to hide and deny his or her own problems.

  • This is not an answer, just a comment or elaboration of your other answer. Please edit your other post to include this aside, then delete this non-answer.
    – tchrist
    Jan 15, 2019 at 15:38

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