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  • The Notorious Bras Coupé:A Slave Rebellion Replayed in Memory, History, and Anxiety
  • John K. Bardes (bio)

Bras Coupé is one of the most influential, yet most understudied, American folk characters. In around 1834, a one-armed enslaved man named Squire escaped into New Orleans's outlying swamps, captivating the city's attention by repeatedly eluding recapture. Rumor had it that he led a large band of fugitive slaves and had murdered countless whites. Locals nicknamed him Bras Coupé, French for severed arm.

Following Squire's 1837 murder, slaves and enslavers circulated dynamic accounts of this disfigured man, murderous and magical, haunting a marshy lair. By the late nineteenth century, Squire's legendary counterpart had leapt from contested memory into literature, and renowned novelists, including George Washington Cable, William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Neil Gaiman, incorporated the character into their work. Bras Coupé's career has been astonishingly diverse. He has appeared in abolitionist treatises, tourist guidebooks, and even an opera.1 Yet Bras Coupé's appearances are striking less for their diversity than for their subtle consistencies.

For close to two centuries, artists, abolitionists, and storytellers have used the character to engage, recalibrate, and perpetuate American anxieties of black empowerment, masculinity, and rebellion. Bras Coupé is an evolving symbolic system that has transmitted the public memory of slave revolt, and that memory's complex acculturative meanings, to new generations of black and white Americans. Consistently, Bras Coupé's invocations have corresponded to national events—mounting opposition to slavery in the 1830s, the Reconstruction era, the civil rights movement, the rise of Black Power—that triggered renewed debates and anxieties over the meaning of black autonomy and resistance. By analyzing Bras Coupé's appearances in written descriptions of oral narratives, abolitionist essays, novels, poems, and film, this essay considers how storytellers have reconfigured this dense vehicle of racial meanings toward competing claims to power.2 [End Page 1]

Bras Coupé remains eerily relevant in the twenty-first century. As the world wonders why contemporary American culture often seems preternaturally perturbed by resistant black masculinity, as Black Lives Matter revives older debates over the historical and psychological subtexts undergirding conflicts between armed police officers and (often unarmed) African Americans, and as #SayHerName questions the invisibility of black women in media coverage of racialized violence, we would do well to note Bras Coupé, and other enduring symbolic systems, that encode and update the values and anxieties that make up the cultural construction of race and transfer it from generation to generation. White supremacy is a system of law. It is also a way of seeing. Unpack Bras Coupé, and one unpacks key strategies of white supremacy's cultural maintenance.

After reconstructing Squire's flight and death as historical events, this essay explores Bras Coupé's representations within three traditions: the oral narratives of nineteenth-century enslaved Louisianans, the oral narratives of nineteenth-century white Louisianans, and the artistic representations of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century antiracist novelists, composers, and film-makers. Following Squire's death, the enslaved of New Orleans incorporated Bras Coupé into an oral tradition and religious system, informed by both local and Haitian materials, which packed his story with subtle political and nationalist meanings. Concurrently, white storytellers demonized Bras Coupé as black rage unleashed, a bogeyman used to scare recalcitrant children, thus perpetuating anxieties of slave resistance. Later, white artists of the Southern gothic tradition—beginning with Cable, the celebrated novelist and collector of black folklore, whose widely popular 1880 novel The Grandissimes included "The Story of Bras-Coupé"—transformed Bras Coupé into a tragic figure, simultaneously sympathetic and grotesque, a conflicted template for both antiracist thought and their own anxieties of racial upheaval.

Bras Coupé reveals how representations of maroonage—the act of a fugitive enslaved person living autonomously, often by hiding in swamps, mountains, or other marginal land—provided enslaved and free peoples in nineteenth-century America with a rare discursive space for considering the taboo topic of black self-determination. For enslaved people, maroonage offered one of the few potent and immediately tangible representations of black freedom.3 For enslavers, the maroon settlement represented an oppositional black chaos on which their own ideas of white...


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