Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462
The reader of “irrepressibly bronze, beautiful and mine” should recall that the late 1980’s, when the poem was written, was a period of raging political and literary debate about the depiction of black men in novels by black women—and in the media at large—as brutal rapists and victimizers. This debate frequently centered on Alice Walker’s novel (and the film adaptation of) The Color Purple (1982). Shange often found herself in the middle of the debate because of her widely popular play, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1976), which depicted black men as potential rapists and killers of black women. Against this backdrop, “irrepressibly bronze, beautiful and mine” can be seen for what it is—a political love poem to black men.
The basic message of the poem is that the speaker has for all of her life felt intimately connected to black men. The black man she is addressing toward the end of section 1 is literally the friend of her father, who used to appear every summer, but is also an image of black men she has known throughout her life. All of her life, she says to him, she has been holding his heart in her hand. This is a turn on the cliché of holding “my heart in my hand” and implies not that she has always wanted to give herself to him but that she has always felt that she had a part of him she wanted to give to him. It also implies that the man in question, who is a stand-in for black men in general, has a lot of heart, so much that he could leave some with her.
The list of black male heroes in section 2 is a tribute to the hearts of these men and an appreciation of the way they have defined the black spirit of which she feels a part. It is to the struggle and pain of defining this spirit that she pays tribute.
The third section of this poem should also be read historically. A widely expressed belief of the time held that the lack of moral values within the black community was responsible for the ongoing economic subjugation of blacks and that sexuality in young people was best repressed. Opposed to this, Shange stresses the sense of vitality, excitement, and completion in sexuality.
The title of this poem provides a good clue to understanding the poem itself. That the person is “irrepressible” implies a vitality of spirit that cannot be contained. The element of sensuality implicit in describing him as “bronze, beautiful and mine” conveys not only the deep intimacy the speaker feels for her subject but also contains in language the sensuousness of spirit celebrated and infused by the poem.