The Life and Legend of Bras-Coupé: The Fugitive Slave Who Fought the Law, Ruled the Swamp, Danced at Congo Square, Invented Jazz, and Died for Love

This anthology collects and introduces the most important versions of the Bras-Coupé story from the major phase of its development between the 1830s and the 1960s. One of the most notorious outlaws in the history of New Orleans, Bras-Coupé was a leader of the maroons who subsisted in the cypress swamps behind the city. Bras-Coupé’s historical career is represented in this edition with evidence from newspapers, census and city directories, police records, treasurer’s books, public proclamations from the mayor’s office, city council minutes, and family histories. After his death in 1837, Bras-Coupé became a legend in Louisiana, and over time, his legend took on fantastic dimensions. He was given superpowers. His skin, it was alleged, could not be punctured by bullets. His gaze could turn you to stone. Moreover, it was said that he was an African Prince before he was kidnapped and brought to Louisiana. He was the most famous performer at Congo Square, playing an indispensable role in the preservation of African music and dance. Sidney Bechet, one of the city’s most celebrated composers and reed players, even held in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, that it was Bras-Coupé who invented jazz. This edition provides a definitive account of the development of the Bras-Coupé legend as it was recorded in folklore collections, magazines, memoirs, city histories, tourist guides, novels, epic poems, short stories, opera, and cinema. It includes historical maps and facsimile manuscripts as well as a full bibliography of works related to this important and heretofore misunderstood outlaw.

“A fascinating study of Bras-Coupé, the legendary, powerful, and defiant runaway slave who inspired novels, an opera, ethnology, musicology, newspaper stories and a Hollywood movie.”―Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, author of Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth-Century

“American maroons have to often been ignored, but in this well-researched book Bryan Wagner deftly shows the significance of the multifaceted tales―in a surprising variety of genres―that have turned Bras-Coupé’s rather conventional maroon life into an unexpected international legend as a hero or a villain. Wagner makes a stimulating contribution to our understanding of how and why these myths and tales developed and what purpose they served.”―Sylviane A. Diouf, author of Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons

Publication date: 
March 4, 2019
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