LeVar Burton speaks exclusively to the Florida Courier in advance of his November appearance at Rollins College in Winter Park.
BY PENNY DICKERSON
LeVar Burton is best remembered in the archives of American culture for his debut in the 1977 mini-series “Roots.” In his first audition and role, the 19-year-old was cast as Kunta Kinte, the wide-eyed Mandinka warrior who fled slave masters with the speed of a wild gazelle.
Burton’s character not only personified rebellion, he made it look cool. He was a hero who gave Blacks nationwide a license to cheer for their own identity and freedom.
“I cannot take credit because there was no master plan on my part. My intention was to do the best I could with what was in front of me, and Kunta was an opportunity of a lifetime,” Burton shared with the Florida Courier.
“Suddenly, I was this fledging actor who was given a role I’d been preparing for my whole life. It was a role that became critically important for this entire culture in a real way, around the impact of slavery in this country.”
Four decades later, Burton remains an iconic figure. He masterfully reinvented himself as an award-winning actor, writer, producer, director, and literacy advocate.
After the applause for “Roots” subsided, Burton was cast in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in a supporting role as Geordi LaForge. And in 1983, he reignited the literacy world as host of the critically acclaimed children’s program, “Reading Rainbow.”
When PBS cancelled the show in 2009, Burton bought the rights, and this year he launched Reading Rainbow EDU, a digital learning application that has introduced a new generation to the show. He also managed the most successful Kickstarter campaign to date which will allow classrooms across the country to access it.
“I was left with, ‘What do I do with the rest of my life?’” said Burton, who didn’t see his career transition as walking away from Hollywood.
“Reading Rainbow was a job being offered that made sense to me, and I knew that PBS was a worthwhile investiture. I also knew how to show up, be prepared, and be the best at what has to be done,” Burton added.
Levardis Robert Martyn Burton, Jr. is known to the world as simply, “LeVar Burton.” He was born in Landstuhl, Germany and raised a military brat.
According to Burton, his parents’ relationship “imploded” when he was in the third grade, which left him in the capable hands of his mother, Erma Jean.
“I see clearly the task and challenge my mother was faced with being a single, Black woman raising a male child. I am the only boy, and middle child between two girls,” said Burton.
“My mother had to ensure that I not just survive my childhood, but that I grow up with the skills and perseverance necessary to make good on the promise that she saw, which was this bright child with limitless possibilities. She wanted me to have an education commensurate with my melanin-challenged classmates,” he chuckled.
Mom’s firm hand
Education came first, speaking Standard American English was a must, and success was the only option. Those were the tenets set forth by his mother Erma Jean, a woman who managed her household with a firm hand.
“I grew up in a house where you either read a book, or got hit in the head with one,” said Burton who laughed heartily as the memory.
“She was an English teacher, so reading was mandatory and you had to be proficient in literacy. I am a grown man and my mother is, has been, and continues to be a guiding force in my life.”
That force was integral throughout Burton’s years at Christian Brothers High School in the city of Sacramento, Cal., where his 83-year-old mother still resides. A graduate of University of Southern California’s School of Theatre, neither Levar or Erma Jean could have imagined his destiny to the degree of specificity it has played out.
“I was one of the lucky ones because my mother’s primary job was to instill in me a confidence that there were no limits except those put upon myself,” said Burton.
“It was in that crucible that I feel like I was formed. She sacrificed time and time again to ensure that I had unique opportunities to achieve and accomplish, but I had to work hard and establish a standard of excellence,” Burton added.
Burton further stated that everything he has done in the realm of education is in homage to the legacy of his mother. He has been able to see the trajectory of his own life through a parenting lens as he raised his son Eian, 35, and daughter Michaela, 21.
Three men of note who have molded and shaped Burton’s career and personhood are Alex Haley who authored “Roots:” Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and Gene Roddenberry, the originator of “Star Trek.” Collectively, they are a trifecta of greatness whose influence left Burton “triple- blessed.”
“I learned the most from Alex, but from all three I learned the importance of the recurring theme: discovering and delivering the authentic voice. I still hear the cadence of Haley’s voice in my head,” said Burton, who emphasized that he met Rogers in the midst of sorting out who he was as a young man.
“I was on the heels of being nineteen, and the world’s most famous public commodity,” said Burton. “‘Roots’ taught me about the sheer power of the media. Fred helped me anchor success and gave me permission to be who I am.”
One of the most palpable testaments of who Burton is rests in the success of his highly lauded Kickstarter campaign. The crowdfunding utility met its 35-day goal of raising $1 million in less than 11 hours. In total, $6.4 million was raised by 105,000 backers – most of whom contributed $50 or less.
“I was blown away by the passion people expressed. It really validated for me that I had the right thing at the right time,” said Burton. “We failed to get support from venture capitalists who were disconnected to our goals.
“We weren’t trying to raise money to flip a company; we wanted to improve the lives of kids and learning,” he added.
The new Reading Rainbow EDU is cutting-edge and is compatible with iPad and Kindle. It is the technology world’s No. 1 educational launch complete with engaging supplemental learning content for teachers and students.
The product’s “holy grail” is the “Skybrary,” a digital library service that exists in a consumer space with lightly enhanced books. Not only is it interactive, but wrapped in the adventures of discovery kids know and love.
“I am grateful. I am a 58-year-old Black man in America. And if you are at all awake, you have some sense of what I have faced to get to where I am in this life and to have accomplished the things I have done,” Burton mused.
“I have doubled down on this effort, and really want to be part of the solution of the education crisis in America. “This brand can be a force for good to educate our children. I also want to go back to television, but first I wanted to see that we could reach kids digitally.”
IF YOU GO
The Winter Park Institute
presents: LeVar Burton: “The Power of Storytelling: Written, Spoken, Lived.
November 5, 2015 7:30 p.m.
Knowles Memorial Chapel