I ran my curious finger down the list of ‘museums’ in the yellow pages. It was my first trip to New York. I was fresh. I didn’t live here yet. The doors of mysterious, adventure-filled Bohemian New York had yet to be opened to me. Then, I met Raven. His museum was the first listing in the yellow pages, and just because of alphabetical order, luck, fate, and good magic-- my finger landed on the words “African American Wax Museum of Harlem” and I knew that’s where I was headed. I called the museum just to get subway directions, and a machine answered with a melodiously deep male voice that was rich with fanciness, feathers, prestige, Harlem and proud blackness. I thought it was strange that there was no one on duty just answering information calls to the museum. Then, Raven picked up. He seemed sleepy and perturbed by my calling so early, but made an appointment with me to visit the museum. Raven was my first trip ever to Harlem. He was my first New York City museum. And he was the museum. He answered the door at the bottom of the brownstone--tall, black, elegant, bald, handsome. At that moment, I looked for the usual others-- curious museum goers-- people with gift shop bags, interest and intellect, and snobbish curiosity for art. Luckily they weren’t there, they hadn’t made an appointment, they hadn’t been lucky enough to get Raven on the phone, so I was alone. Raven led me through his museum personally explaining each and every artifact, most of which were items he had made himself-- the small wooden chair he created as a child that was featured at the World’s Fair, clothes, jewelry, and a room filled with wax figures he had personally crafted. The museum tour was an ancestral, spiritual ritual dressed as Raven, spoken deeply and as brazenly as Raven-- each of his figures fit with their own gaudy gear, kente cloth, or fake gold. Malcom X wore his glasses, Michael Jackson had on his one glittering glove, and Mary McLeod Bethune was dressed prim and proper in her suit. All the figures were perfect and imperfect at the same time. Each were given his distinguished commentary in a voice meant to educate and remind me of why these images and people needed to be preserved. And isn’t that what a museum is-- a place where important things are preserved so that we don’t forget their value?
His tour led us outside into his backyard-- where a path of green Astroturf led to more paintings that celebrated his life, Africa, and African American history. Of course Raven had already named me a “diva.” He liked that I was from New Orleans, and that I had a reverent fascination with him-- and his flamboyant, colorful and peculiar way of designating importance to his own art, his own history, and nestling it like a hidden treasure right in the middle of Harlem. So instead of just collecting my ten dollar fare for the personalized tour, he invited me to stay at the picnic table in the backyard for a glass of Grand Marnier he pulled out of an icebox kept outside. There we sat and laughed and cooed and heckled and hollered about good times, history, Harlem, New York, people and their games and sadness, and you know-- life. Raven spent the time giving me, a total stranger, his grand and fabulous wisdom, sharing a day with me in his backyard with only the surrounding buildings of Harlem and their windows listening in. I can’t recall a specific lesson he paid me. But I know he taught me that I was sitting with royalty when I sat with him. I can‘t forget a picture of him in a fur coat cuddled up with two dazzling beauties as his dates on both of his arms. I can’t forget that he had an autographed black and white photo of the poet Audre Lorde hanging on the wall of the museum’s bathroom door. I can’t forget how he walked me like a king to the C train stop, coming with me below the ground to say goodbye. I can’t forget how much he wanted to be remembered.
Melanie Maria Goodreaux January 16, 2010/Our Raven