The Bean Eaters

The Bean Eaters Blurred Individuality: Comparing the Subjects of "The Bean Eaters" and "We Real Cool"

"The Bean Eaters" has similarities to another poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, entitled "We Real Cool" (for more on "We Real Cool," see our full GradeSaver guide). Both poems engage with collective identities, but to very different ends. This is a short exploration of how the collective identities in these two poems compare and contrast.

In "We Real Cool," the "We" takes on a singular aspect, created by the unity of the seven pool players. Together, they represent a particular subset of youth in the 1950s and 60s, namely young Black men living in cities. These young men are concerned with maintaining an image of "cool," and their choice to skip school and play pool can be interpreted as a form of rebellion against an oppressive system. Nevertheless, they choose to identify themselves as a unit throughout the poem. In "The Bean Eaters," the choice is not up to the two people being spoken about. They are identified as "Two" and a "pair" by an omniscient speaker. They never, as do the young men in "We Real Cool," speak for themselves. Brooks' choice to deny the subjects of "The Bean Eaters" this chance to speak for themselves reflects the way culture in the 50s and 60s shifted its gaze away from the elderly, especially elderly people of color, and focused on youth movements and student protests. The form of a third-person speaker also more generally speaks to the loss of agency and relevance that comes with aging. In this particular social moment, it seems, the elderly cannot speak forcefully for themselves, as can young people.

There are also ways in which the grouping of individuals into units in these two poems has a similar effect. Both groups, the pool players and the bean eaters, represent cohorts. The young men in the pool hall are the future, the next generation, the very people who are taking attention away from the aging pair in "The Bean Eaters." When Brooks writes that the bean eaters "have lived their day," we can think of the pool players from "We Real Cool" currently living their day. If the bean eaters' time has passed, the pool players' time is now. Both poems appeared in the same collection (entitled The Bean Eaters) in 1960, when Brooks began exploring more specific political events occurring in the U.S., and each of these poems successfully conveys the anxieties of particular subsets of people—young, Black men living in cities, and aging Black people living in cities.