The Bean Eaters
Born in 1917, Gwendolyn Brooks was a life-long resident of Chicago until her death in 2000. Even as a child, she aspired to be a writer and received the support of her parents. She published her first poem at age thirteen in the magazine American Childhood. Under the tutelage and encouragement of James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes, Brooks began to submit her poems to various other magazines and newspapers. Her first collection of poems, A Street in Bronzeville, won wide acclaim when it was released in 1945, and Mademoiselle named her as one of their "Ten Young Women of the Year."
The Bean Eaters, Brooks’s third collection of poetry, was published in 1960, after she had already won the Pulitzer Prize and a number of other awards. In her first two collections, Brooks explored everyday African American life through subjects like home, family, war, racism, and poverty, while melding colloquial speech with formal diction.
In The Bean Eaters, Brooks continued to investigate these same interests, drawing heavily on Chicago’s south-side neighborhood of Bronzeville. However, the book was written during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, during which the Brooks's interest in social issues deepened and found expression in her work. In The Bean Eaters, she employs free verse and refuses to shy away from topics such as educational integration and lynching.
One can sense the range of Brooks’s work in three of the most anthologized poems from The Bean Eaters: the title poem, "The Lovers of the Poor," and "We Real Cool." In "The Bean Eaters," Brooks narrates the simple dinners of two elderly people who take comfort in their memories, their "remembering, with twinkles and twinges." The long, dense lines and single stanza of "The Lovers of the Poor" unflinchingly confronts the idea that white, liberal women sometimes use volunteerism as an insincere way of alleviating their consciences. In contrast, the short lines, airy stanzas, and catchy rhymes of "We Real Cool" capture the voices of poor, urban adolescents in the space of only twenty-four words.