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NMAAHC Debuts New Exhibit on Religion and Black History

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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recently debuted its exhibit celebrating Black history and religion through the photographs of Ebony and Jet magazine. 

Known officially as “Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism, and Popular Culture,” the exhibit features unseen material from the museum’s purchase of the collection of photographs earlier this year. 

On view at the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts gallery until November next year, “Spirit in the Dark” is composed of three main sections. 

The “Blurred Lines: Holy | Profane” part of the display focuses on musicians and religion while the “Bearing Witness: Protest | Praise” and “Lived Realities: Suffering | Hope” sections focus on religious leaders and Black activists, respectively. 

Amongst the figures featured in “Spirit in the Dark” are Malcolm X, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Angela Davis and Jesse Jackson amongst others. 

“Ebony and Jet captured and granted rare insight into the lives of influential Black figures, often revealing how religion has inspired, undergirded, and animated the work of Black artists, activists and changemakers,” said curator Eric Lewis Williams in an official release

“Through these photographs, objects and the larger stories they represent, we are able to highlight the tremendous diversity within the Black religious experience and bear witness to the role of religion in the Black struggle for human dignity and social equality.”

The launch of the display comes after the Smithsonian announced the transfer of the Johnson Publishing company archive featuring the photos by Jet and Ebony to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Through the partnership, the museum received more than three million photo negatives, almost 983,000 photos, 166,000 contact sheets and 9,000 audio clips and videos from the magazines’ vaults. 

Founded in 1945 and 1951 respectively by businessman and publisher John H. Johnson, Ebony and Jet Magazine were amongst the first few publications to depict the lives of Black Americans. Beginning with coverage of World War II, the magazines covered the civil rights movement in detail, documenting the movement as events unfolded. 

The events that the magazines have written about and published photographs of include the Montgomery bus boycott, the murder of Emmett Till as well as the teachings and rise of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Ebony was amongst his earliest supporters, offering him a column known as “Advice for Living By” for him to address readers of the magazine. 

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