“Oh, look, y’all! It’s Nina Simone.” Inside a small second-floor gallery in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), a woman smiles in the direction of a framed black-and-white photo of the legendary musician as, for several beats, she drags out the last syllable of Simone’s name in the adoring, fangirl way reserved only for our most highly admired.
“Nina was complicated, but my Lord, she was otherworldly. And I didn’t know”—the woman pauses to tap the museum label beneath the picture—“that she was a PK. That gives me a different perspective of her.”
“PK,” in the lexicon of the Protestant church, stands for “preacher’s kid.”
So for several minutes following her observation, the woman and her two companions linger under Simone’s intense gaze to volley engrossing questions and answers. Are PKs like Simone, whose mother was a Methodist preacher, more prone to rebellion than other children raised in the church? Than other children in the general population of the community? How many PKs, they wonder aloud, have shirked the respectability boundaries of the Black church to become wildly popular in secular music, only to incorporate the musical traditions of the Black church into the secular music that made them wildly popular?
It’s the type of thought-sharing and discussion-enticing engagement that Eric Lewis Williams, the museum’s curator of religion, hoped for when he conceptualized “Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism and Popular Culture,” the newest exhibition in the museum’s Center for the Study of African American Religious Life and an examination of how negotiating spiritual faith on secular platforms has shaped the public and private lives of Black heroes including Aretha Franklin, Angela Davis, Duke Ellington, Maya Angelou and Marvin Gaye.
Their stories, articulated through artifacts from the museum’s collection on display for the first time—Malcolm X’s typewriter, Little Richard’s well-worn Bible, a dapper suit owned by the equally dapper evangelist Reverend Ike—demonstrate how the interrelationship of sacred and secular have broadened the Black religious experience, way beyond the rigidity of doctrines and institutions.
The hallmark of the show is the series of 37 rare photographs from the annals of Ebony and Jet magazines, part of the historic Johnson Publishing Company archive recently acquired by NMAAHC and jointly owned by the Getty Research Institute.
The images visually knit together the presence of religion in pop culture and Black public figures’ applications of faith to the work that made them prominent. Divided into three sections, “Spirit in the Dark” invites visitors to examine the bridging of holy and profane in “Blurred Lines”—like the constant boundary-pushing that was as characteristic of Prince as his purple insignia—along with the juxtaposition of spirituality and activism in “Bearing Witness” and in the socially charged projects artists and activists produced to honor Black suffering and hope in “Lived Realities.” Like Black folks themselves, the exhibition embodies a diversity of faith practices and beliefs.
“To me, the most exciting discovery is the way in which the Johnson Publishing Company chronicled different religious traditions,” explains Williams, who is a preacher himself. “In so much of African American history and culture, we speak about the Black church, but we have individuals from Black Hebraic tradition. Buddhism is represented in the exhibition and a figure like Marvin Gaye, who was Hebrew Pentecostal in his origin.”
“Then you have people who blur and transgress these lines like Prince, who complicated how we understand personal religious practice because he borrowed some different traditions and created another kind of religious expression,” Williams adds.
For years, the Johnson Publishing archive dangled in an uncertain future, which included a collection of one million photographs; three million negatives, slides and contact sheets; and thousands of hours of video footage that captured both phenomenal moments and quotidian images of Black life from 1945 to 2015. After the 2016 sale of Ebony and Jet, its hallmark publications, Johnson Publishing—once the largest Black-owned and -operated publishing company and one of the most successful African American businesses in the country—filed for bankruptcy three years later.
The move left its archive, valued at $47 million, in limbo.
At one point, it was up for auction. Then, in 2019, it was purchased and rescued by a consortium composed of the Ford Foundation, the Getty Trust, the MacArthur Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. Experts at the Getty Research Institute have been working to preserve and digitize the photos, some of which have never been printed and, as a result, never seen by the public. The archival pigment prints, a digital print technology that lends stability, included in the exhibition are part of a legacy collection of the 2,800 most iconic images.
“Spirit in the Dark” borrows its name from the title of Aretha Franklin’s 17th and arguably most personal album, released in 1970. She too was a “PK,” raised by her father, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who was possibly the most famous Black preacher in America at the time.
His New Bethel Baptist Church was nestled in the bustle of Detroit’s Black entertainment district, right on the same street where blues legend John Lee Hooker used to gig.
A personification of the ways sacred and secular can and did commingle from very early on, little C.L. Franklin would trot out the child prodigy Aretha in the ungodly late night to sing and play piano for the musician friends and celebrity guests who peopled his home after hours, like Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington.
So by the time she became Aretha the powerhouse, she’d already bolted across the boundaries of the church to launch a lukewarm career in jazz before becoming the world wonder of soul, R&B and pop. The saints in the church lambasted her for crossing over and accused her of leaving the house and will of God to indulge the sins of secular music, but her famous father reminded folks, “She never left the church.”
In a number of ways, the exhibition “Spirit in the Dark” echoes the duality and dexterity of the formidable Spirit in the Dark album and its title track.
“When Aretha Franklin produced her album, the nation was going through a hard time. She was going through a hard time in her own life. She felt the spirit, this unseen hand that was guiding her even in that moment of darkness—I think that really speaks to our time too,” says Williams.
“There’s a lot of darkness in our world right now, and this idea of something that guides us through darkness to bring us to another moment of light, I thought was very powerful. Of course, I’m working from a multireligious kind of understanding, so whether it’s human spirit, ancestral spirit, the Holy Spirit or a spirit of optimism, there’s something that carries us to another moment of light during dark times.
”With crucial support from the Lilly Endowment Inc., “Spirit in the Dark” opened in the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts gallery in November 2022 and will be available for public viewing until November this year.
Visitors can also listen to a curated playlist of music by artists included in the exhibition and experience the visuals virtually with a Searchable Museum and in a new book Movements, Motions, Moments: Photographs of Religion and Spirituality from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, featuring visionary photographers like James Van Der Zee, Lola Flash, Chester Higgins and Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.
In person, the space that holds “Spirit in the Dark” also holds an energy, something like an edgy reverence, that doesn’t mind questions and challenges, just like the culturally significant figures featured in the exhibition didn’t mind bridging the worlds that mattered most to them.
“We talk a lot about the decline of institutional religion, but that doesn’t equate to the decline of religion. We haven’t been able to account for the transformation of religion and different religious practices, because religion is being transformed,” Williams explains.
“It’s being practiced in places once perceived as dark. People are borrowing from different traditions and creating new religious expressions, finding different forms of religious community, and not in the brick-and-mortar that our grandparents took us to. It’s dynamic. It was dynamic then, and it’s dynamic now.”
“Spirit in the Dark: Religion in Black Music, Activism and Popular Culture,” is on view in the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts gallery at NMAAHC through November 2023. The new volume Movements, Motions, Moments offers a visual accompaniment to the exhibition.