Archive for April, 2013

Branton Blessings

Posted in Uncategorized on April 28, 2013 by Josslyn Luckett

So many memories have flooded my mind since my brother, Jason, called last week to tell me Leo Branton died. Hard to figure out where to begin but one of the best days that comes to mind was Geri and Leo’s 50th wedding anniversary. Jason and I were seated at a table with Buddy Collette and his daughter Cheryl and Brock Peters and his beloved long time companion, Marilyn. There was too much laughter, storytelling, and toasting to have a moment to think, I’m sitting with the legendary saxophonist who integrated the Musicians union and Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird, celebrating the marriage of the man who freed Angela Davis to Dorothy Dandridge’s sister-in-law. Dorothy Dandridge brought me to that table.
geri and dotty
In 1990, I was writing my senior thesis on Dorothy Dandridge and decided to dial LA 411 to see if the Brantons–Geraldine Branton, “Dotty’s” best friend (in the photo above with her first husband Fayard Nicholas and then sister-in-law Dorothy) and her husband, Leo, Dandridge’s lawyer–were listed. They thankfully were. When Geri picked up the phone, I nervously introduced myself, said I was a UCBerkeley student researching Dandridge, would be home to L.A. for spring break, and wondered if she’d grant me an interview. Geri’s classic, deadpan, Tennessee tinged response was: “Well, I’m not jumping up and down about it.” But then she told me to call her again soon as I got to town. We talked for hours that first visit…maybe 20, 30 minutes on “Dotty” but then onto her heroes, Paul Robeson, Ralph Bunche…as well as her–well how can I put it gently–individuals she expressed great dissatisfaction with…I won’t mention them here and now. Whether singing praise or firing sharp criticism Geri would follow her reflections to me with, “I want every young black person to know this!” From that day on she became my teacher and ultimately she and Leo became family, my most cherished Angeleno elders and now beloved ancestors.

Jason and I attended Brock Peters’s memorial with Leo, scattered Geri’s ashes with Leo, and attended several of Buddy Collette’s final concerts with Leo (Jason was a pallbearer at Buddy’s funeral in 2010). As many of the obituaries coming out now on Leo mention, Mrs. Rosa Parks lived with the Brantons many winters in her latter years. I’ll never forget the first Christmas I stopped by to deliver a card to Geri and Mrs. Parks opened the front door. Other times I’d have this staggering yet simple privilege of sitting between Geri and Rosa in the Branton’s den, just watching the 6 o’clock news. One of my favorite Geri lines was, “You know, Josslyn, if I had been with Mrs. Parks on that bus, we would have been lynched!” Always self aware, Geri could have the most wicked tongue…and the cutest thing was hearing Mrs. Parks say, “That’s not very Christian of you, Geri!”

At one point in my last couple years working in the Hollywood grind, I tried hard to get Leo to consider working with me on a screenplay of the Angela Davis trial. He finally agreed one weekend to have me join him and his son, Chip for a drive down to their place in Mexico. He said we could talk about the trial and see if it made sense to work on the project together. The short story is Leo, not a master of patience, distrusted my lack of knowledge about the legal system and court procedures and didn’t think I could write the story well enough. Then he kept saying he was working on his own book, his own autobiography anyway which would cover the trial, and really I should be writing the story of former death row inmate, Robert Wesley Wells. Similar to the way Geri first talked only briefly about Dotty then went on and on about various other moments, heroes of black history, Leo left the topic of the Davis trial early on in the trip and went on and on about the Wells case. Freeing a political prisoner no matter how famous was nothing compared to saving a man’s life, which he did in the 1950s when he successfully got Governor Goodwin Knight to grant clemency to Wells.
Where Leo lacked patience, he never lacked love, love of justice, love of good food (he’d get so excited about hunting down the best sausage in L.A. for his gumbo) and love of good jazz. He attended my debut “Jazz on the Sacred Side” concert back in 2008, was grumpy as hell that I hadn’t mentioned the “sacred” part, as Leo was a fierce atheist, but he could not deny the dazzling virtuosity of Dwight Trible’s performance and was first in line after the show to buy his cd. Come to think of it, Leo attended the first concert in the series and Buddy Collette, wheel chair bound in his last year on the planet attended the final concert of the series. Talk about a grace which surpasses all understanding, I don’t know how I was blessed to know and receive such love and support from elders like these. Love you so much Leo! May you rest peacefully, and hopefully you and Geri are now right back to bickering and cracking each other up and marveling in each other’s brilliance. Gusts of laughter and tears of gratitude stream down my face imagining those new and old conversations…