A Peculiar Dynasty which in the Light of Present Conditions Is Worth While Studying


First, a casual observation: W.E.B. Du Bois uses the word peculiar an awful lot in The Souls of Black Folk (24 times by my count), and it tends to be found in some pretty prominent places. Consider all of the sentences in which it (or its variants) occur:

And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else, save perhaps in babyhood and in Europe.[i]

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. (8)

Here at a stroke of the pen was erected a government of millions of men,—and not ordinary men either, but black men emasculated by a peculiarly complete system of slavery, centuries old; and now, suddenly, violently, they come into a new birthright, at a time of war and passion, in the midst of the stricken and embittered population of their former masters. (21)

Before the courts, both in law and custom, they stand on a different and peculiar basis. (32)

Yet there is also irreparable loss,—a loss of that peculiarly valuable education which a group receives when by search and criticism it finds and commissions its own leaders. (36)

Now in the past the American Negro has had instructive experience in the choosing of group leaders, founding thus a peculiar dynasty which in the light of present conditions is worth while studying. (36)

In Philadelphia and New York color-prescription led to a withdrawal of Negro communicants from white churches and the formation of a peculiar socio-religious institution among the Negroes known as the African Church,—an organization still living and controlling in its various branches over a million of men. (37)

Mr. [Booker T.] Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission; but adjustment at such a peculiar time as to make his programme unique. (38)

And first we may say that this type of college, including Atlanta, Fisk, and Howard, Wilberforce and Lincoln, Biddle, Shaw, and the rest, is peculiar, almost unique. (70)

And finally, when you fasten crime upon this race as its peculiar trait, they answer that slavery was the arch-crime, and lynching and lawlessness its twin abortion; that color and race are not crimes, and yet they it is which in this land receives most unceasing condemnation, North, East, South, and West. (74-75)

Nor is this [obvious fact that a slave ancestry and a system of unrequited toil has not improved the efficiency or temper of the mass of black laborers] peculiar to Sambo; it has in history been just as true of John and Hans, of Jacques and Pat, of all ground-down peasantries. (103)

Here again the hope for the future depended peculiarly on careful and delicate dealing with these criminals. (120)

And here again the peculiar conditions of the South have prevented proper precautions. (121)

What is thus true of all communities is peculiarly true of the South, where, outside of written history and outside of printed law, there has been going on for a generation as deep a storm and stress of human souls, as intense a ferment of feeling, as intricate a writhing of spirit, as ever a people experienced. (122-23)

To most libraries, lectures, concerts, and museums, Negroes are either not admitted at all, or on terms peculiarly galling to the pride of the very classes who might otherwise be attracted. (124)

But just as often as they come to this point, the present social condition of the Negro stands as a menace and a portent before even the most open-minded: if there were nothing to charge against the Negro but his blackness or other physical peculiarities, they argue, the problem would be comparatively simple; but what can we say to his ignorance, shiftlessness, poverty, and crime? can a self-respecting group hold anything but the least possible fellowship with such persons and survive? and shall we let a mawkish sentiment sweep away the culture of our fathers or the hope of our children? (126)

Since under the peculiar circumstances of the black man’s environment [these characteristics] were the one expression of his higher life, they are of deep interest to the student of his development, both socially and psychologically. (130)

But especially it leads us to regard [the Negro church] as peculiarly the expression of the inner ethical life of a people in a sense seldom true elsewhere. (133-34)

With this come, too, peculiar problems of their inner life,—of the status of women, the maintenance of Home, the training of children, the accumulation of wealth, and the prevention of crime. (136)

The worlds within and without the Veil of Color are changing, and changing rapidly, but not at the same rate, not in the same way; and this must produce a peculiar wrenching of the soul, a peculiar sense of doubt and bewilderment. (136)

In some such doubtful words and phrases can one perhaps most clearly picture the peculiar ethical paradox that faces the Negro of to-day and is tingeing and changing his religious life. (136-37)

Nor is this situation peculiar to the Southern United States,—is it not rather the only method by which undeveloped races have gained the right to share modern culture? (138)

Ten master songs, more or less, one may pluck from this forest of melody—songs of undoubted Negro origin and wide popular currency, and songs peculiarly characteristic of the slave. (170)

Second, a question: what sense are we to make of the word peculiar in The Souls of Black Folk?

Here’s what the OED has to say:

Etymology: < classical Latin pecūliāris of or relating to a person’s peculium, belonging to a person, one’s own, personal, private, that characterizes or belongs to a person, thing, or place, specific, special, singular, exceptional, in post-classical Latin also exempt from diocesan authority (1535, 1684 in British sources), also as (neuter) noun, peculiare private property (6th cent.) < pecūlium private property

1. a. Distinguished in nature, character, or attributes from others; unlike others, sui generis; special, remarkable; distinctive.

2. a. Of property, possessions, etc.: that belongs or relates to one person, place, or group, as distinct from others; that is a person’s private property. Usually modified by a possessive. Obs.

2. b. Of a quality, feature, custom, etc.: that characterizes, distinguishes, or belongs to a person, thing, or place; specific. Usually modified by a possessive.

3. Of separate or distinct constitution or existence; independent, individual; single. Obs.

4. In the Church of England: exempt from or not subject to the jurisdiction of the bishop of the diocese.

5. gen. Singular, unusual, strange, odd.

6. Belonging to the Christian denomination called the Peculiar People. rare.

It’s worth digging down into the Latin pecūlium and its Indo-European root *peku.

Whereas comparative philology tends to define *peku primarily as “live-stock” and only secondarily as “wealth” or “personal chattels, moveables,” in Indo-European Language and Society (1969), Émile Benveniste effectively reverses the priority here. In his analysis of the root word and its development, Benveniste posits that *peku originally designated “moveable possessions” and only later came to refer to the possession of livestock (and of sheep in particular) because of extra-linguistic (that is to say, historical) reasons. He considers his interpretation here “the norm with regard to the terms of possession: a general or generic term is used by a certain class of producers as the designation for the typical object or element. In this sense, it spreads outside its original milieu and becomes the usual designation of the object or element in question.”[ii] With respect to the Latin pecūlium, matters are a good deal less contested, for it “is known that pecūlium denotes possessions granted to those who had no legal right to possessions as such: personal savings granted by the master to his slave and by the father to his son” (46).

A concluding speculation: peculiar is a keyword in Du Bois’s early writing because its own history is marked by chattel slavery and by what the descendants of chattel slavery have saved from it beyond the law over time—willingly or not, through force of will or habit, by means of inward compulsion or outright coercion. It is a word that both names and is itself a mixed possession; singular and shared, odd and characteristic, it’s a property that moves in, around, and through The Souls of Black Folk.

[i] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Brent Hayes Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 7. Further reference provided parenthetically.

[ii] Émile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Elizabeth Palmer (Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1973), 51. Further reference provided parenthetically.