Creative Conflict in African-American Thought

Creative Conflict in African-American Thought


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Twenty-five years ago, Wilson Moses set the bar for African American intellectual

 history with Golden Age of Black Nationalism.



Books by Wilson Jeremiah Moses

Golden Age of Black Nationalism, 1850-1925 (1988)  / The Wings of Ethiopia  (1990)

 Alexander Crummell: A Study of Civilization and Discontent (1992)  / Destiny & Race: Selected Writings, 1840-1898  (1992) 

 Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (1993)

Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s  / Afrotopia: The Roots of African American Popular History (2002)

Creative Conflict in African American Thought (2004)

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Creative Conflict in African American Thought

Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, Booker T. Washington

W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey

By Wilson Jeremiah Moses



Moses has revised and brought together in this book essays that focus on the complexity of, and contradictions in the thought of five major African-American intellectuals: Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus M. Garvey. In doing so, he challenges both popular and scholarly conceptions of them as villains or heroes. In analyzing the intellectual struggles and contradictions of these five dominant personalities with regard to individual morality and collective reform, Moses shows how they contributed to strategies for black improvement and puts them within the context of other currents of American thought, including Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, Social Darwinism, and progressivism.

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With the provocative insight and erudition that we have come to expect from him, Wilson Moses analyzes contradiction in the thought of such prominent black intellectuals as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois in relation to the fundamental conflicts in American political culture and the human condition, including racism versus egalitarianism, Jeffersonian democracy versus Hamiltonian federalism, Idealism versus materialism, and free will versus determinism.


Kevin Gaines, University of MichiganTwenty-five years ago, Wilson Moses set the bar for African American intellectual history with The Golden Age of Black Nationalism.  Creative Conflict in African American Thought is an analytical masterpiece of comparable originality.  This complex yet always lucid meditation on the social and political thought of five men of ideas and action whose racial prescriptions profoundly informed the course of 19th and early 20th-century American history sets a new bar for African American intellectual history.


David Levering Lewis, New York University


Wilson Jeremiah Moses is one of America’s finest historians. He stands four-square on scholarship that is solid and thorough-going, always finding fine tidbits of information that move us forward in our evaluation of America’s historical past and present. A mainstream historian, Moses is nevertheless iconoclastic and irreverent in his historical criticism and narration. 

For those who desire/dare a fresh, balanced, and intriguing read of five “representative black” men, namely, Douglass, Crummell, Washington, Du Bois, and Garvey, then Creative Conflict in African American Thought (2004) is a necessary read. 

The book is indeed five mini-biographies. But the subjects that Moses tackles are much larger than the sum of the individuals, such as how should we separate the political from the personal in evaluating the thought and action of our leaders. How leaders in African American thought resolve conflicting ideals as collectivism and individualism, separatism and melting pot, bourgeois and proletarian, elitism and the mass culture. Jefferson versus Hamilton. The contradictory values of work, sacrifice, and the purposes of education. 

What we get from Moses are informative and realistic accounts of real men living in the real world, a Western world, racially white, with all its and their contradictions, idiosyncrasies, and brilliance. 

Moses attempts successfully to get at what drives the thought and actions of ingenious men who try to change their lives and the circumstances that boxed them in and those of their fellows who suffered America’s racial oppression, a condition they found near inescapable. 


Like all his writings, Creative Conflict, though a charming intellectual history of American and Western elites, has depth, and exhibit a broad learning and understanding of how the world works. This masterpiece of scholarship is a keeper — a beautiful, lively, fragrant wine to be savored, to be studied if we ever wish to escape the rehashing of worn-out ideals that bind us.


Rudy Lewis, Editor of ChickenBones: A Journal

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Part I. Introduction: Reality and Contradictions

Part II. Frederick Douglass: The Individualist as Race Man2. Frederick Douglass: Superstar and  Public Intellectual3. Where Honor Is Due: Frederick Douglass, as Representative man4. Writing Freely? Frederick Douglass amd the Constraints of Racialized Writing

Part III. Alexander Crummell: The Anglophile as Afrocentrist5. Alexander Crummell and stoic African Elitism6. Alexander Crummell and the Southern Reconstruction7. Crummell, Hero Worship, Du Bois, and Presentism

Part IV. Booker Taliafero Washington: The Idealist as Materialist8. Booker T. Washington and the Meanings of Progress9. Protestant Ethic versus Conspicuous Consumption

Part V. Burghardt Du Bois: The Democrat as Authoritarian10. Du Bois on Religion and Art: Dynamic Contradictions and Multiple Consciousness11. Angel of Light and Darkness: Du Bois and the Meaning of Democracy12. Du Bois and Progressivism: The Anticapitalist as Elitist

Part VI. Marcus Moziah Garvey: The Realist as Romantic13. The Birth of Tragedy: Garvey’s Heroic Struggles14. Becoming History: Garvey and the Genius of His Age

Part VII. Conclusion: Rescuing Heroes from their Admirers15. Rescuing Heroes from their Admirers: Heroic Proportions Imply Brobdingnagian Blemishes

Cambridge University Press Published April 2004, 320 pages, paper  Creative Conflict in African American Thought

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Tananarive Due and Wilson Moses

My ideas are perhaps interesting and creative, but I doubt that they contain the seeds for solving very many of the world’s ills. Peace, Wilson

My object is not to flatter Wilson Moses but rather to show my appreciation of what he has amazingly accomplished. It is the thoroughness of his historical approach, his understanding of the “material context” in which individuals and leaders wrote, spoke, and lived that I find impressive. And I find him rather gentle, even-handed, and even amused when he comes up against opposition. In such discourse I often fail. If that were a way of life, performed in a manner in our daily intercourse, the world indeed would be a better world.

But more, he allows and emphasizes “the necessity to develop a body of scholarship based on complicated historical memory and a strict analysis of African American prose writing,” as a means to prove “our own regard for the depth and complexity of African American thought” (Preface, 18). Well, that indeed is an extraordinary commitment. How cannot one but love a man who places that kind of burden on his shoulders when he sets out to produce a piece of historical writing.

I’ve seen the success of his approach in Alexander Crummell, a most excellent piece of biographical scholarship I have ever read. I see the same mind at work in Creative Conflict.

Building monuments and museums to our heroes, in a manner, move us in another direction toward hero worship or sainthood and I’m not sure that the world’s problems are solved in that manner—often ignorance is frozen in bronze, mortar, and steel. I’ve gotten through joyfully several chapters of Moses writing Douglass. There are several passages on Douglass’ oratorical powers that I find of especial interest revealing Moses ability to turn a phrase and a perspective that becomes exceedingly refreshing and insightful. He wrote

Douglass’ animal magnetism and strong character—not to mention his powerful intellect and astounding courage—usually gave him a psychological advantages in dealing with challengers. But he had a tendency to be carried away in the sweep of his own rhetoric, and brilliant though he was, Douglass did not stand head and shoulders above every other African American contemporary. Some thought his ego obnoxiously overblown, and noticed in him a penchant for making generalizations on the African American condition that were little more than solipsistic projections of his own atypical career. His perpetual self-magnification led to prickly relations with Henry Highland Garnet and occasional friction with Alexander Crummell. John Mercer Langston found him difficult to work with as the two traveled together on the antislavery circuit. There were no question regarding Douglass’ moral or physical courage, and his intellectual endowment could not be overlooked, but neither could his enormous egotism” (CC, 21, 22).

And then later on he wrote,

Douglass’ oratory was like ‘the awful rush of ocean waters’, to use one of his famous metaphors, but the forcefulness with which he expressed his opinion sometimes overpowered the fact that he had not really got things right. One suspects that Douglass was frequently more interested in exercising his theatrical skills than in responding to a valid point. In extemporaneous debate, even before hostile audiences, he almost always carried the day (CC, 28).

Undoubtedly, Moses is an admirer of Douglass. “Frederick Douglass’ status as the greatest African American abolitionist and orator of the nineteenth century seems unshakable.” But Moses holds Douglass’ feet to the fire. “He was certainly the most accomplished master of self-projection.”

Of course, there are other types of writing one can admire and appreciate as well. I’ve just published Tananarive Due’s “History in the Making: Barack Obama’s Speech at First AME Church of Los Angeles

Ms. Due is a poet and novelist, not a historian. Her response to Obama’s speech is that of a committed follower: “One way or another, we are in the midst of history in the making. It’s not every day you go to church and feel like you’re witnessing a miracle.” But Douglass and Obama indeed may have qualities in common, such as what Moses calls, “animal magnetism,” the power to move men as well as women. You know the “goosebump effect,” which some enthusiasts imagine the Holy Spirit moving in their hearts.

In any case, I think we can enjoy the artistry of Tananarive Due and well as that of Wilson Moses.



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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama’s political success and Oprah Winfrey’s financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today… than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don’t know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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update 7 January 2012




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