“As long as we are engaged in storytelling that moves the culture forward, it doesn’t matter what format it is.”
LeVar Burton is an admired actor, author, and literacy expert, who is easily recognizable from his stellar performances on Roots, Star Trek, and Reading Rainbow. From his crucial roles on television to his work to promote literacy, LaVar has made an impressive impact in the worlds of both entertainment and education.
“I’m a Mandinka warrior!”
His very first audition, during his sophomore year of college, led to his first acting role, as Kunta Kinte in Roots. Acting alongside industry greats, such as Cicely Tyson and John Amos, LeVar became part of a project much bigger than an acting job. This miniseries first aired on January 23, 1977, with millions of viewers captivated from the very first night. People gathered together to watch a series that looked at slavery in a different light, after previously being exposed only to depictions of happy slaves in movies such as Gone with the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On the eighth and final night, 85% of all American households with televisions were tuned in to see the finale, making it still the third-most watched single episode of all time. The success of Roots made LeVar a global icon of the powerful human spirit.
LeVar revisited Roots a few years ago, this time as a producer. He received a call from executive producer Mark Wolper, who had decided to recreate the acclaimed miniseries. The new version is told in four episodes with another amazing cast, including Laurence Fishburne and Forest Whitaker. While LeVar was at first hesitant of a new version of this epic tale, he realized that younger generations need to relate to this important story. He asserts that “the vestiges of slavery are alive and well and have been institutionalized in American culture- in the disproportionate number of black men incarcerated, in phenomena like Driving While Black.” We are still feeling the impact of slavery in society today, and understanding our history is the only way we can alter our future. While the 2016 miniseries could not hope to garner the same attention of the 9-time Emmy award winning original, it was received extremely well by audiences and critics alike.
Space: The Final Frontier
Also known for his work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, LaVar directed and acted in the show. He donned the telltale VISOR of blind engineer, Geordi La Forge. Not only was he one of the few African American main characters on the show, he is proud he was “able to represent for people who have physical challenges,” showing viewers you are not limited by disabilities. While Star Trek days are behind him, he still joins his old comrades at conventions. On August 2-6, 2017, Star Trek: Las Vegas 2017 Convention will bring together the entire main cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. LeVar will join up with William Shatner, George Takei, Jonathan Frakes, and others, much to the delight of fans.
“But you don’t have to take my word for it”
“Take a look, it’s in a book,” sang the theme song from the popular show, Reading Rainbow. For an astounding twenty-six seasons, LeVar was the host and executive producer of this PBS series. He is the recipient of 12 Emmy Awards, five NAACP Awards, and other honors for his work on the show. His show has been credited by many for giving them a lifelong love of reading. While Reading Rainbow is off the air, it is definitely not forgotten. LaVar and his business partner, Mark Wolfe, created RRKIDZ, the first cross media children’s enrichment brand in decades. They reach young readers with a new Reading Rainbow app and its digital library, Skybrary. With this app, children read by themselves or listen to books narrated by celebrity narrators.
Passionate about education, LaVar gets involved in many projects and conversations concerning literacy and learning. He appears as a frequent guest on top news outlets and co-hosted the White House Science Fair in 2013. He recently participated in the 20th anniversary of Read Across America Day in Washington, D.C. This annual event focuses on increasing literacy in children and fostering a love and appreciation of literature at an early age.
From his acting and directing roles to his tireless work to encourage literacy, LaVar Burton is an inspiring individual who has made an impressive impact in the entertainment industry and in the education of our youth.