The Bean Eaters

The Bean Eaters Study Guide

"The Bean Eaters" is the title poem of Gwendolyn Brooks' third collection of poetry, published by Harpers in 1960. The poem describes an aging Black couple's ritual of sitting down and eating beans on their old, chipped plates while they silently reminisce about their younger days. The poem communicates a longing for excitement and youth, and demonstrates how in the youth-obsessed culture of the 1960s, the concerns of the elderly, especially elderly people of color, were swept aside, much like the couple in the poem is physically hidden away in a rented back room.

The poem was one among several that appeared in the September 1959 issue of Poetry magazine, anticipating the collection's release. As a whole, the collection marked important developments in Brooks' poetics. Themes of race, war, socioeconomic disparity, and poverty in the United States still featured heavily in her work, but her voice was becoming harder for mainstream, predominantly white critics to qualify as merely incidentally Black. In a generally favorable review of The Bean Eaters, critic and academic Harvey Curtis Webster maintained that he "preferred [the poems] in which race was 'an accident' and craftsmanship more easily visible" (Melhem, 101). But Brooks and the artists involved in the Black Arts Movement felt that race was no accident in their art. In The Bean Eaters collection, Brooks, more than ever before, links her poems with specific cultural and political events like the murder of Emmett Till and the desegregation of American schools. The collection marks a distinct departure from the formal constraints to which Brooks previously adhered, shifting from regular metrical constructions and rhyme schemes to free verse and ballad. Only two sonnets appear in the collection.

D.H. Melhem sorts the poems in The Bean Eaters into three categories: Political (current), which are poems about specific cultural events occurring in the first half of the 20th century; Political (general) whose poems tend to satirize overarching themes and arcs in U.S. culture, specifically class disparities; and finally, Miscellaneous, where the poems are more theme- and scene-driven. The title poem, "The Bean Eaters," falls into the Miscellaneous category, being about an aging couple eating dinner in their rented apartment. The poem's irregular meter and rhyme build up a shot put–like momentum to its last and longest line, underscoring the couple's quiet longing for their bygone youth.