Gwendolyn Brooks' "The Bean Eaters" gives a snapshot of an aging Black couple as they sit down to eat dinner in the rented room where they live. The vagueness of the highly zoomed-in impressionistic scene telescopes out to comment on the condition of aging Black people in America amidst the youth-centric culture of the 1960s.
The first stanza establishes the clipped, bustling musicality of the poem. The first line describes the couple's diet as consisting primarily of beans, a cheap staple that is often synonymous with frugality and "tightening the belt." The first line also describes the couple's skin tone; by referring to them as an "old yellow pair," the reader knows that they are both relatively-light-skinned Black people, which may inform how they are regarded in their community and at large. The rest of the first stanza establishes the casual nature of their dinnertimes and the worn implements with and on which they eat their dinner. Similarly to another Brooks poem, "We Real Cool," the subject of "The Bean Eaters" consists of multiple individuals who are, by way of their similarities and relationship to one another, treated as a singular subject. Not once in the poem are either of the "pair" regarded separately from the other.
The first stanza of "The Bean Eaters," though irregular in its meter and rhyme, sets up a possible metrical pattern (which is then immediately broken in the second and third stanzas), but which throws the reader both off-balance and on-guard for metrical and rhyming regularity. In this stanza, the first and third lines both contain ten syllables, but the poem in general doesn't follow this pattern. This first stanza also establishes an AABA end-rhyme scheme, with an internal A rhyme with "chipware" in the third line. In this way, the repetition of the "air/are" rhyme imitates the repetitive nature of the couple's lives and diet of beans, while the unpredictability of line length and rhyme placement mirror their longing for youth and desire for variation.
The airy nonchalance with which the speaker describes the couple's monotonous daily life also speaks to their self-awareness of the boring monotony and recalls a once-vibrant youth. For example, the phrase "casual affair" may seem a little overdressed to describe a dinner of beans at an old creaky table, but there is deprecating humor behind that phrase. The couple and the speaker know that their dinner is no "affair" at all, but the diction expresses their longing for some kind of excitement.
The labeling of the couple as an "old yellow pair" identifies them by the color of their skin while also engaging with cultural expectations surrounding race and Blackness. The term "yellow," or sometimes, "high yellow," referred to Black people with light or pale complexions. At some points in history, the relative lightness of a Black person's skin could gain them social currency in a white-controlled society, while the darkness of a person's skin contributed to their marginalization and mistreatment. It's still true today that people are judged and treated differently in the U.S. and abroad due to the shade of their skin, but by identifying the aging couple as "yellow" in their complexion, Brooks may have been drawing attention to the idea that even with their lighter complexion in the first half of the 20th century, it did them no good in the long run; they still were swept away into a rented back room and ate beans every day.