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SPIRIT in the DARK

Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture

Photograph of Marvin Gaye in a purple jacket on stage performing

Sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, at times in the shadows—but always somewhere in the frame—religion is essential to the story of Black America. In the Black press, which has served as a primary chronicle of Black life, religion often finds reflection in the images, comments, stories, and lives of noteworthy individuals, including religious and political leaders, musicians, authors, athletes, activists, and educators.

Black and white photograph of Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama

Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama, February 4, 1965; photo by unidentified photographer

Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture examines Black religious life through a selection of photographs from the Johnson Publishing Company archive. Founded in 1942 by John H. and Eunice W. Johnson, the Johnson Publishing Company celebrated African American culture with its foundational publications—Ebony, Jet, and Negro Digest (later Black World). The images featured in the exhibition are supported by an array of objects from the Museum’s collection, many on display for the first time. Together, these images, objects, and stories reflect diverse aspects of the Black religious experience and testify to the role religion has played in the struggle for human dignity and social equality.

Black and white photograph of Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama

Malcolm X addressing a mass meeting at Brown Chapel AME Church, Selma, Alabama, February 4, 1965; photo by unidentified photographer

Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture is presented by the Museum’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life and the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts.

The photographs featured in this exhibition are from a legacy collection of 2,800 of the most iconic images from the Johnson Publishing Company archive, now jointly owned by NMAAHC and the Getty Research Institute.

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