Oran Z began his quest for a wax head of Barack Obama even before the president took office. The creator and proprietor of the Pan African Black Facts and Wax Museum in South Los Angeles met resistance from his supplier, who wanted to wait at least six months after Obama had won to begin the molding process. "They said that every president changes after getting into office," Z recalls.
He persisted, and soon he was putting on the final touches. Mrs. Obama also arrived just a few months ago.
Despite the effort, he still considers the Obama figure no more or less significant than any other in his collection. "I'm just a collector," he says. "I present the figures and the facts, and it's up to you to interpret what's important."
This philosophy aptly describes the enormous museum, which contains hundreds of thousands of items from African- and African-American history, according to Z. The 59-year-old collector -- who eschews his legal name, Belgrave, as a slave name -- started collecting back in his native Omaha after realizing that the other African-American museums highlighted only the positive aspects of black history and culture. "I collect everything African-American. If it's for blacks, against blacks, I collect it all," he says.
The museum's nondescript building, a former medical clinic, is on Martin Luther King Boulevard near the Baldwin Hills Mall and the defunct Marlton Square area. Inside, glorious Egyptian rulers stand across from a case containing irons used to transport slaves. A wax figure of an impassioned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesticulates as controversial '70s radical Angela Davis looks on. A Nazi banner rests in a case just a few feet from an American flag signed by Obama, which reads, "Change '08."
On a recent private tour, Z stops at a display case and pulls out a neck shackle used to transport slaves. He slips it around his neck to model it. Behind him, a hooded Klansman looks on.
At times the displays and dioramas follow a well-crafted theme; at other times it's just an orgy of juxtaposition -- and that's where the appeal of this museum lies.
Z started out by collecting cookie jars and collectible and play dolls of African-American design. He then moved on to documents, books and, finally, wax figures. Z bankrolled his collection with his highly successful hair-weaving product, Hair Fusion.
In December 1999, freshly divorced and ready to start anew, he headed to California, where he turned his collection into a museum. It grew rapidly as he bought out the collections of others. The museum now contains autographed articles from black sports stars such as Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. His first wax figure, of Malcolm X (another Omaha native), now shares space with Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. A sprinting O.J. Simpson bursts past Tiger Woods as Michael Jackson stands by. Some of the figures seem lifelike; others appear more like caricatures. They stare blankly, but their eyes appear to follow you as if living, breathing humans are the aliens here.
The collection eventually outgrew the original 2,000-square-foot museum and its adjacent 14,000-square-foot storage space. Six shipping containers now sit behind the building housing separate collections. One, called the "Holocaust of Black America," has been partly reconstructed as a slave ship. Racks of black mannequins lay supine with their ankles and wrists shackled to hard wooden frames. The walls contain flyers for slave auctions, as well as pictures of blacks hanging from trees after having been lynched.
Z uses the containers for traveling exhibits he brings to schools, but soon they may be called into service for a more prosaic purpose: The Marlton Square redevelopment plan, a gentrification project that has seen legendary mismanagement and epic cost overruns, might force him to move.
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"I guess they don't think it's a good idea to have a black museum owned by a black man located in a black neighborhood on Martin Luther King Boulevard," he says bitterly.
At the end of the tour, standing next to the racks that hold the slaves, Z runs a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair, tears up and says, "You know why I don't want to leave here? Because when that black neighborhood child walks in here, the first thing they will see is a black man, and they will see that a black man owns something."
Oran Z's Black Facts and Wax Museum, 3742 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., gives free private tours for groups of up to 12 people. (323) 299-8829, oransblackmuseum.com.
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