'It's hidden history': the race to save one man's collection of black Americana
Source:theguardian Author:Andrew Gumbel Date: 2018-08-29 Size:
Oran Z’s house is so crammed with black American memorabilia……

‘I collect everything’ … Oran Z with his hoard of black memorabilia at home near Lancaster, California. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Oran Z’s house is so crammed with black American memorabilia there is barely room to move. The hallways are lined with glass-fronted display cabinets and plastic storage crates filled with everything from slave shackles to the disembodied wax heads of African-American icons. The shelves groan under the weight of thousands of dolls, vinyl records, Mammy cookie jars and a vast assortment of what he calls “knick-knack paddywhacks” – curios, gadgets and toys, many of them startling in their unabashed racism.

The dining table, doing double-duty as desk space for a bank of computers, is hemmed in by a set of outsized, high-backed leather chairs. The kitchen is strewn with every imaginable object except cooking equipment. And outside the house, behind the swimming pool and towards the Sierra Pelona mountains of the Mojave desert, are nine shipping containers filled to the brim with a lifetime’s obsessive accumulation.

“I’m a collector,” Oran says unapologetically. “I collect everything.”

These days he’s also a man on a mission. Having been diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer, he wants to find a home for his collection while he still has time.

Oran Z displays a slave collar.

A few years ago, Oran had a large exhibition space in LA’s historically African-American Crenshaw district, where he also had a hair salon, dance hall and small radio station, all in a building he owned near the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza shopping mall. His Pan African Black Facts and Wax Museum wasn’t exactly an established stop on the Los Angeles tourist trail, but it was a treasured local curiosity, a disorganised grandmother’s attic of an exhibition with some astonishing items.

Any illusions about being in the heart of Dixie came crashing down when he walked into a factory and gunfire rang out

Walk in and you might have seen a drinking fountain sign from the segregation era in the deep south (whites to the left, “coloreds” to the right), or a large metallic dog tag once worn by a slave at auction, or a piggy bank featuring a stereotypical black beggar, labelled the “Jolly Nigger”. The trick is to put a coin in the man’s outstretched hand, flick a switch and watch the hand dump the coin in the man’s mouth. Oran calls such items a “hidden history”, a testament to America’s deep racism that most museums would be squeamish to display without a lot of explanatory context, if they dared display them at all.

Oran thought he’d grow old and die in his Crenshaw location, but then came the 2008 financial meltdown and a buy-out offer from a community redevelopment agency, which saw an opportunity to gentrify the neighbourhood – but is yet to convert the space into a long-promised new shopping centre.

The front and back of a piggy bank from Oran Z’s collection. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Oran decamped to the desert, thinking the move would be temporary, but six years later he is still here. So is all his stuff, even if the wax figures are now relegated to boxes where Oran has put clear plastic goggles over their eyes to stop them popping out. Every day, he contacts museums, the Los Angeles public library, art spaces, schools – anybody he thinks he can convince to view his collection as an educational resource and, potentially, an inspiration to black kids stuck in urban poverty and looking for a way out. In some ways, in all its eccentricity and excess, there is no separating the collection from the man who amassed it.

Oran Z is a born storyteller, a man of all-consuming, largely self-taught curiosity. He was born in Omaha, Nebraska, into a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses so protective he wasn’t fully conscious of his race and its meaning until his late teens. At 16, while still at school, he established a printing business. The following year, he took off to California, where he dreamed of becoming a professional drummer. Then he went to Alabama, where his sister was in beauty school. Any illusions he had about doing as he pleased in the heart of Dixie came crashing down when he walked into an ice cream factory and gunfire rang out above his head. (His sister later told him never to go through the front door.) Unable to get a decent job because of the colour of his skin, he bused tables and hustled at pool halls until he had earned enough money “to get the hell out of there”.

‘Back in the day, you couldn’t be black and live here’ … Oran Z outside the shipping containers in which he stores his collection. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

Years later, Oran got into the hair business back in Omaha. He claims to have invented the bonding adhesive used in hair-weaving and the first hair detangler, only he says to have both ideas stolen from him by hair-care conglomerates. One day, feeling down on his luck, he decided to kick his cigarette habit – he was up to five packs a day – and spend the money on antiques and knick-knacks instead. A history professor he knew at the University of Nebraska asked him to give her a first look at any black memorabilia, and soon he was keeping the items she didn’t want.

Oran opened his first exhibition space in Omaha, next to his salon, and as he travelled the world doing hair shows he raided junk stores, thrift shops and antique emporiums. As his children grew older – he had seven of them, six of whom survive – he’d get them to go knick-knack hunting and offer $20 to the one with the best find of the day.

a wax bust of President Barack Obama.

In 1997, Oran’s luck soured once more. His second wife filed for divorce and he left Omaha for Los Angeles. There, in his misery, he pictured himself as a hermit and a drunk. “I took a spoon, a fork, a gallon of gin and a gallon of vodka,” he said. He found himself living among crack addicts and dealers, until one day he spent his last 38 cents on a bean burrito from Taco Bell and found the fortitude to pull himself together.

He got back in touch with his hair-care vendors, rebuilt his business and, in two years, was solvent enough to buy his building and stuff it with ever more memorabilia. He bought from garage sales and from museums. He acquired papers, books, autographs – including two faded letters from the Tuskegee Institute African-American to its headmaster Booker T Washington, the famed orator and opponent of Jim Crow laws in the south.

Film crews often set up in the parking lot outside his building, and Oran talked his way into being used as an extra on ER, Seinfeld and a handful of movies, including How Stella Got Her Groove Back. He says it was his hair products and weaving technique that Johnny Depp used in Edward Scissorhands; he thought at one point he might go into the movie business full time.

Baseballs signed by stars of the Negro leagues. Photograph: Dan Tuffs for the Guardian

But it was his collection that came to define him. “Some of it is bloat,” he freely admits, alluding to the sheer number of dolls, piggy banks, cookie jars, baseball mitts and cereal boxes emblazoned with images of black athletes, “but some of it is one-of-a-kind.”

As he works to digitise the collection, a seemingly sisyphean task, and shows off what he has to passing museum curators and other collectors, he is helped by his wife, Betty, who has claimed one corner of the kitchen table as her own, and the 17-year-old grandson who lives with them in the wilds of Antelope Valley.

It’s an unlikely place for an African-American family. “Back in the day, you couldn’t be black and live here,” he acknowledges. But he enjoys the quiet, and the poppies that flower in spring, and the regular sightings of coyotes, roadrunners and bobcats.

And the clutter? Whatever happens to the collection, it seems unlikely that will ever go away. “What do you do?” says Betty, who knows better than anyone. “You accept the baggage.”

[Editor] 张艳