"The Bean Eaters" is the title poem of one of Gwendolyn Brooks's ground-breaking poetry collections. When the book hit the streets in 1960, Brooks was already a well-known poet – in fact, she'd won the Pulitzer Prize for her earlier work. This particular collection, however, is chock-full of poems that became some of Brooks's most acclaimed work. In it, she explores the racial and economic tensions that play out in the lives of everyday people in Chicago's South Side neighborhood.
If you've read anything by Gwendolyn Brooks, we're betting that it was "We Real Cool." That's in this collection too. (And, hey, it's on Shmoop, as well! Check out our guide for more great analysis of Brooks's work.) Brooks became more and more interested in the political climate of the Civil Rights Movement as she matured as a poet. This collection doesn't pull any punches – it takes on the hard stuff, like racism and poverty and even lynching – and it does so with frank language and a clear eye.
So why use The Bean Eaters as the collection's title? Well, in many ways, the poem "The Bean Eaters" sets the stage for all of the topics that Brooks's poetry covers. After all, it's not about lynching or racism or any of the more splashy topics that appear elsewhere in the collection. Instead, this poem paints a careful (and devastating) portrait of social isolation and the dire economic straights of an old couple. They've been left behind in pretty much every sense of the term: their kids have moved on, they're obviously suffering from the economic inequities that continue to plague a racialized America, and, well, they have to eat beans every single day. (Try it some time. It's not all that fun.)
You could think of this couple as the future for many of the characters in Brooks's work – which is part of what makes the poem so devastating. The piece itself doesn't thrust any political message out there. Instead, it shows us the lived consequences of political injustice. As it turns out, that's a pretty powerful message all on its own.
Poverty and loneliness? Where do I sign up?
No, seriously. Not every poem is about sunshine and moonbeams, folks. As it turns out, some of the very best literature is the type that allows us to turn our attention to people or situations that might otherwise pass without notice.
We're not saying that this is one of those poems that you should read just because it's good for you – that sounds way too much like your mother. What we are saying, though, is that most folks won't get recorded in the history books. Heck, their next-door neighbors probably won't even remember them in ten years. Most people go through life unnoticed.
That's precisely why Gwendolyn Brooks wrote "The Bean Eaters." Her poetry is a social weapon, one that works by forcing us to see how people exist in the most dire of circumstances. If beans are all they can afford, then they eat beans – together. And that's worth noting. It's probably even worth reading about.