This essay examines the production of a dynamic “Old Negro” figure in African American discourse during the New Negro Renaissance. Conflicting impulses to claim the Old Negro as an ancestor and to renounce him as an obstacle to racial progress mirrored a broader tension about representing slavery in black cultural production. While Alain Locke and other critics called for literature to portray the Negro of the new day and discard the old representations, James Weldon Johnson understood the Old Negro’s enduring importance to modern black self-conception. His 1912 novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, portrays the consequences of accepting existing, white-authored literary representations of the Old Negro. While Johnson’s ex–colored man fails to reclaim this figure, Johnson himself did exactly that in his 1917 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), an operatic cantata that until now has never been examined. In this text, Johnson incorporates and evolves the Old Negro into a contemporary literary tradition that challenges the racial violence of Jim Crow and celebrates black survival.

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