Claude McKay referenced in latest episode of Boardwalk Empire

HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” set in Prohibition-era Atlantic City, is a period piece rich with historical detail. The show often references contemporary cultural touchstones as a way to develop its characters. The reference in last night’s episode to Harlem Renaissance poet, writer and Rosenwald fellow Claude McKay is a good example.

The second episode in the new season features a brief conversation between the bright and relatively well-off daughter and son of Chalky White, an African American gangster and bootlegger. Lester White (Chalky’s son) is presumably back from his first semester at Atlanta’s historic Morehouse College and he tells his sister about playing jazz piano in a roadhouse near campus. Before he departs, the two share a laugh over jazz being the “devil’s music” (it’s certainly a far cry from “Clair de lune,” which Lester performed for his father in an earlier episode) and Lester hands Maybelle (Chalky’s daughter) a book of McKay’s poems, telling her “They’re worth a look.”

One of the episode’s general themes is parenting and, specifically, the plot line with Chalky White and his children is about the disconnect between generations. Although Chalky pushes his children to attend college, he’s clashed in previous episodes with them over his illiteracy and his allegiance to Southern traditions. Chalky pays for his children’s education (primarily through illegal means) but he’s cut off from their academic and emotional growth.

McKay’s poems, like “The Lynching” and “If We Must Die,” were formative for young readers in the early 1920s, but they remained inaccessible to many from the previous generation, like Chalky White. McKay and other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance pointed the way to a new future with their artistic expressions, but “Boardwalk Empire” does a good job displaying the conflict of this vision with the pre-Civil Rights hopelessness of bitter racial division and violence. The scene also concisely shows how the cultural products of the Harlem Renaissance made their way around the country through word of mouth.

By Michael Rose