Through A Looking Glass Of Black Americana: The Long, Strange Journey Of Oran Z

For decades, Oran Z collected everything he could about black America, from racist tchotchkes to wax figures of Malcolm X, displaying for a time in his own museum. Now, his life's work is in jeopardy.
Oran Z. Belgrave, founder of the now defunct Oran Z's Black Facts & Wax Museum in Los Angeles, stands in front of the shipping containers that have held most of the contents of his independent African-American history museum since it closed in 2011. Source: Samir S. Patel

Summertime is for road trips. Atlas Obscura teamed up with All Things Considered to travel up the West Coast, from California to Washington, in search of "hidden wonders" — unique but overlooked people and places.

In the western tip of the Mojave Desert, a couple of hours north of Los Angeles, a lone McMansion-style villa sits on 10 acres surrounded by a fence. There's little but dust, solar farms and transmission towers for miles around.

On a recent afternoon, from the villa's oversize front door emerges a short, heavyset black man wearing an elaborate black-and-gold agbada, a sleeved robe from West Africa. His name is Oran Z.

Before he moved to this isolated spot in 2012, he presided over an independent museum of his own making, Oran Z's Pan-African Black Facts & Wax Museum in Los Angeles. It offered a dizzying kaleidoscope of black Americana, from wax figures to historical artifacts to racist, Jim Crow-era memorabilia.

"We got to preserve the whole story," he says. "You've got to deal with it and if you can't see it, it don't exist."

From 1999

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