‘Spirit in the Dark’: Uplifting Journey at African American History Museum

“Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture  (NMAAHC), through November 2023, is like walking through a  documentary film. 

The exhibit explores Black religious life through a selection of photographs from the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Ebony, Jet and Negro Digest. The images “spotlight noteworthy individuals — including religious and political leaders, musicians, authors, athletes, activists and educators — and are supported by an array of objects from the museum’s collection, many on display for the first time,” the museum writes on its website.  

We see framed photos from these key Black publications along with a display of  two dozen books and record albums featuring 37 prominent African Americans  artists and activists. We know their stories —we’ve heard them in concert, like Aretha Franklin, or seen them lead in protests, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or read their books, like James Baldwin. 

But this exhibit goes deeper to explore connections in the diverse aspects of religion’s influence in African American life.   

“Blurred Lines: Holy/Profane” considers musicians and vocalists  who blur the boundaries between sacred music  for worship  and  popular music for entertainment. Washington-born musical legends Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye are included.

Duke Ellington (1899-1974), one of America’s greatest composers and musicians was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His image is featured in the “Blurred Lines Sacred/Profane” exhibit at the NMAAHC exhibit.

“Bearing Witness: Protest/Praise” examines the role of religious leaders who led the way as activists in social protest. Some very near the location of the NMAAHC, like Bayard Rustin on the National Mall, a lead organizer during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, DC, August 28, 1963. 

“Lived Realities: Suffering/Hope ” explores the endeavors of Black artists and activists. Washington trailblazing civil rights activist, suffragist, and educator Mary Church Terrell is included.  

This is not just another exhibit on the wall to see.  Greatly enhancing the experience, there’s a  playlist of music by artists to listen too.  A special companion digital exhibition is included on the  Searchable Museum website. 


“Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture” is at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) at 1400 Constitution Ave. NW, now through Nov. 2023. 







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