I still remember the first time I watched Roots.
It was October ‘89, and I was finally crowned old enough to join the grownup business of late night television with my mom as an onlooker. Our wood panelled TV sat in its corner, with me bouncing from the floor, to my stomach, just before being latched to my mom’s lap. A man named Kunta Kinte was being whipped via my television screen for refusing to refer to himself as “Toby”—his slave designation. Before that moment, slavery and racism was an abstract concept from a picture book, but this felt real. It felt personal. With his mutilation hurting my eyes, I turned away and cried.
I cried for most of that week.
As I’ve grown, that image has stuck with me; the face of LeVar as a 19-year-old having the courage to be the face of that pain. It’s what motivated me to confront topics of racism, and moving forward, I’ve often wondered how he felt about taking on that responsibility.
“Sharing an enthusiasm has been my soul and core intent,” LeVar “Kunta Kinte” Burton, reveals in a phone call. “The actual outcome of that has been generations of people that hold me in a high regard, it was never, not even slightly the expressed goal.”
It’s a hard thing to believe. Afterall, he was one of the few men that took the time to teach children like myself through the 70s, 80s and 90s how to read through Reading Rainbow. I read my very first book back to front because of the man; Momma Don’t Allow. And as if that wasn’t enough, Burton found the time to move from working on the ground, to working in the stars as the fictional Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge; arguably the most intelligent officer on Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In short, Burton took on the representation of a black struggle at the age of 19, but he also became the manifestation of an optimism with a black face. Now at the age of 61, he’s still rocking the same belly laugh, while directing, acting and reading to past and future generations through LeVar Burton Kids and LeVar Burton Reads. I had the amazing opportunity, just a week and change before my birthday, to ask this global treasure about the pressures of being an unblemished icon with a love for literature. And of course to draw his opinions about a certain non-reading president.
As corny as this is gonna come off right now, there’s no way I’m not typing this.
VICE: Listen, I’m sure you hear this a lot, but you’re one of the reasons why I even write for a living, especially as a black writer. Seeing someone that looked like me, and spoke stories into existence, it meant the world to me.
LeVar Burton: Oh man, I really appreciate hearing that brother.
I sorta wonder about when you have these moments to sit down and take in comments like, how do you not get overwhelmed over the generations of people who hold you at that high regard?
Well for me, being not only someone that can read, but a reader for life has always been a badge of honor for my family. My intention all along has been to simply share that same enthusiasm for the written word, because as you can tell from my life, I know full well the benefits of being a literate human being. And I know how books have helped to shape my own life. Sharing an enthusiasm has been my soul and core intent. The actual outcome of that has been generations of people that hold me in a high regard. It was never, not even slightly, the expressed goal at all (laughs), the goal was to just read and do my thing. Plain and simple.
So what was the actual intent to start out?
Oh, definitely to make a living like every other person out there (laughs). But also to follow this thing called my passion you know. I had options before me. I was getting praise and I’m here getting a full scholarship at several universities and I chose the University of Southern California that provided the best opportunities to eventually become an actor.
Yeah and you became several faces within that space relatively quick. From Roots , representing race relations, to Reading Rainbow and Star Trek . I always wondered how you were able to steer clear of self-destruction like so many other early celebs.
Yeah. Fame is extremely difficult to navigate through no matter how old you are. In my case, I was just lucky enough to always have people around me that loved and cared for my well being, and were willing, most importantly, to be honest with me. When I was of the mind that I could become some insert athlete, they were present to remind me that, no no no, biologically, that’s not gonna happen blood (laughs). So more than anything, people with whom I’ve been comfortable with and who’ve I’ve been able to hold accountable to my most highest expression have been integral to my development.
Who are some of those people that keep you in check?
Oh man, my wife is certainly one of them. I also have a group of male friends that act as my council of accountability. Five or six close friends of mine who are committed to supporting each other through thick and thin. We’ve actually done this once a week for a couple of hours. And I’ll say, it’s been about two to three years now that I’ve been doing this on the regular.
That’s interesting. When did you decide that these group sessions were so necessary?
You know…it came out of a period of my life when I was really searching for the methodologies of being more successful at general living. I saw that I had this opportunity in my life to slow down and think about this. And like with all of us, when you’re on the move, it’s those self-destructive tendencies that can potentially sabotage the whole damn thing. I’ll say that I reached a point when I definitely wanted to avoid that. So it ultimately became about looking for more successful ways of living a life that can co-exist with the fame. You know the cycle. You go through the process. You do the research, and you expose yourself to as much as you possibly can. That which makes sense, you embrace like I did, and that which doesn’t make sense, you just keep on walking. But that rigorous relationship with self-introspection was really key here.
I want to talk about your momma Burton in the role of your development, who I know you love to mention. Just how integral was she?
Let me tell you, there is no person more important in my life. Certainly no one more influential. And since her passing this year, my heart has been really full of her legacy, especially more so now that she’s gone. She was my everything, my teacher, taskmaster and arbiter of taste (laughs). She was my cheerleader, disciplinarian and as a single parent, she became my everything. She had the ability to wear multiple hats, and indeed she did.
I can relate. I was raised by a single parent myself, but I could never admit to following my mother’s orders whenever she just told me to read. What did your mom do that was so effective for you?
Certainly where literature is concerned as I’ve spoken about in the past, she was effective. But it extended to other areas of our relationship. You have to understand that my mom was a doer. She wouldn’t just say you should read more, I would watch her read all the time. It’s what she was always doing. We’d look into the everyday newspaper when I wa a kid. We would have family dinners and we’d talk about the current events, the news reel, and we’d go from the Vietnam War all the way to the civil rights movement. We were that kind of active family. A family that was proactive in the lives we were trying to develop and pursue in the 60s and 70s in America.
And when I say integral, I mean, you had to have had a really solid foundation to become the first mainstream representation of slavery in America when you took on Roots . I think a lot of people underestimate just how dangerous and risky that would have been in the 70s.
Oh yeah, I mean when you think about it, black people in North America really had a love and hate relationship with being black in the 1970s, for rightful reasons. I mean, hello (laughs). So that response to Roots was a two-pronged affair from the black community. Some were enormously proud to see a reflection of this dark past presented to audiences around the country. And some were just ashamed to acknowledge it as so deeply a part of our past. They really wanted to step away from the idea of an enslaved America…it’s an ongoing conversation. But you can’t have a conversation about America in any way shape or form without having a conversation about the slavery and institutional racism that birthed and followed it. It was the foundation for the things we love today. To discount that, and continually try to ignore that is harmful at our own peril. It should be obvious by now, but we can never move forward unless we firmly handle that which came before. We’ve yet to successfully handle this original sin of America. We just haven’t and ever since then, we’ve continued to struggle with it.
While many of us continue to ignore it, as if we were post-racial.
Exactly. To be frank, it’s really clear to me that we’re never going to be close to a post-racial society until we consistently acknowledge the racialization of America, and how we even managed to get here.
But what was that like in the aftermath? I could imagine you are walking down these streets with you being recognized as the face of Kunta Kinte. I’m sure you’ve had experiences.
Well tell me a few.
I’ll never forget being at an airport when this brother came running across this crowded lobby. He couldn’t believe he was standing in front of Kunta Kinte. I eyed him and immediately admired his African dress and every section of what he was wearing from his pants to his tunic. This brother notices, strips down to his bare undergarments right in front of me, and insists that I take his clothes. This man intensely felt the need to give me something because he felt that I had given him something in return.
Even in the country Suriname, a small place on the coast of South America, there are songs written about Kunta Kinte. When I stepped out on those grounds and heard the words, it just took me out. It takes me out every time. I mean, I repeat, there are songs written about this character. This is a country with a black population that was a part of a 200-year guerrilla war with the Dutch, and they won. So these are a people who value the warrior aesthetic very highly. But…it’s still so weird for me to be on both sides of that lens. Because I certainly get the historical and global significance of Kunta having played him. But I always feel very protective of him as well being as proud, because he’s very personal to me. So when I hear people say, I don’t want to hear about any more Roots, or, I ain’t gonna watch no more Roots, nobody wants that shit anymore, that was years ago..it’s like.
Like Snoop Dogg. (Laughs) Right? I’m like woah, hold up. Don’t go blaming the narrator and don’t blame the story. A story is someone’s story. I get that you’re not comfortable with it. And I get a lot of that discomfort around the impression that it’s the only story that ever gets told about black people in America. That same old story of slavery. But again, until we really learn from the lessons of that story, which many still rarely do, we’re never going to get beyond what we still seem to be dealing with today, but on a different scale.
What’s your view on how movies are dealing with issues of race today?
We’re certainly dealing with similar issues but in a different time. For films like Get Out or even the more recent title called The Hate U Give, these are more sophisticated and nuanced to match the times we’re living in. It’s a treatment of the same exact situations. Being black in America means that you’re looked upon as being the other. But if you’re black and male, you’re looked upon as being a dangerous other more often than not. That’s a journey, man. That’s a real thing. That’s not you or my imagination as some would convince us into believing. That’s not you or I being the victim or playing the race card, that’s real. That’s the fucking reality. I mean sure, there’s certainly other places in the world where the burden of blackness isn’t engrained within an entire culture. That burden being that I have to be responsible for the motional health of white people. That it’s incumbent on me to make you feel comfortable. That’s what it constantly feels like to live in this America. And look, I believe that everything is political no matter what people say. Every damn thing. That’s life and life ain’t fair. Human beings are forever capable of amazing goodness but also despicable evil. That’s a duality that can never be ignored.
I gotta know. How were you able to be the face of franchises that were incredibly popular and not be type-casted and regulated to one thing, pretty much the rest of the Star Trek cast for instance?
(Laughs) I frankly don’t know to this day. I’ve followed my heart, my gut and hoped for the best. Things have just really worked out for me in my life under those principles. When I look at the big picture, the totality of my life experience, I can’t help but see that there’s some kind of design within all that. There’s some force at work that’s beyond my understanding. That much is clear. Can I necessarily explain it? No. But I sure do feel like I’m the beneficiary of something undeniably great.
Have you turned down work to prevent being typecasted?
Oh of course. I’ve turned down plenty of work. But sure as hell not often (laughs). I got bills to pay, man.
It’s not just about bills. You’re still doing the same things you’ve been doing without lowering yourself. You’ve accomplished so much, yet you’re doing podcasts for adults and the like.
Noel, I just love what I do. I found my calling in life and this is that calling. I’m a storyteller and with that comes the desire to do that in as many ways as I possibly can. Acting, producing, writing, directing, podcasting, hell…shadow puppets, I mean whatever (laughs). I want to keep telling stories to both the young and old until it’s all over, because a told story will forever have the power to inspire us on our way to achieving our highest potential in life. It informs our journey, who we are, why we’re on this earth. All of that information is self-contained within the stories that we tell and pass on, and I’ve been just one of the few who were lucky enough to become connected with my calling and my destiny really early in life. It would be impossible for me to not recognize that I’m attached to the hip to a real blessing that feels handed to me in this life, and I just want to maximize it. I don’t want to leave any page unwritten in this life that I have. I want it all left on the page.
There are a few that are less willing to read these stories anymore though. Take those self professed non-readers Kanye West and Donald Trump.
Oh, here we go with these non-readers.
Haha, but really, they seem to represent a growing number of people who have the same ideas about reading.
I’m sure, and I got something to say about those people like Donald Trump and Kanye West who self profess themselves as non-readers. And this is what I want to say. I ain’t got time for anyone like that anymore. I ain’t got time for the Kaynes or the Trumps who don’t read as it shows. Go somewhere else with that nonsense and take that bullshit someplace else. For as long as people like that will continue to publicly profess this idea to a generation of people, I’ll be standing here for literature until my very last breath. I repeat, until my last very dying breath. I’ll stand for it always in the living world. That’s where I’m at right now as far as those two and anyone like them (laughs).
Nothing else needs to be said on that I guess. But I’m sure you acknowledge the varying degree of ways we’re consuming information these days.
I completely get that. But what we simply need to do is make sure we include the written word as a part of our regular diets. We need to create a balance as best we can as our modes of consumption change for our own benefit. We’re certainly living in an era where the paradigm has shifted away from the written word into the moving pixelated image. But it’s not like when writing entered the fray, we just suddenly stopped talking (laughs). There’s no reason why we should stop reading y'all. We gotta keep reading.
Couldn’t leave you without a Star Trek question, especially in mentioning Donald Trump and some of the dark times we’re living in. I’d like to know what would you like to see happen as far as Star Trek ’s vision of the future.
Star Trek needs to keep representing that hopeful vision of the future now more than ever. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been attracted to Star Trek before my involvement and after. It was both the antithesis and the antidote to the dystopian view of a future world. I’m an Aquarius by design, and that compels me to bet on the human race. As far as the movies themselves in the JJ Abrams timeline, I’ve noticed that it adheres less to that same value system, the same system I personally value. To me, Star Trek is at its best when it exudes the idea of exploration as expressed in the way Gene Roddenberry had always envisioned it. Which was of course the idea that there’s this infinite scope of diversity among the infinite combinations of life within a universe that by definition, is diverse and forever infinite. Watching Star Trek was always a powerful reminder that the only moment we’re getting off this planet to explore the outer reaches of space is when we get our shit together in the here and now.
So what’s the little bit you can tell me as far as this Hot Docs podcast festival you’ll be attending for your LeVar Burton Reads podcast.
Well I’ll be in several cities for the Hot Docs Podcast Festival so hey, if you guys like storytelling come on out. I’ll be reading with live instrumentation It’s going to be a great time for everyone. Noel dude, come on out. It would be great to see you in person.
You know I will.
Please make sure you do.
LeVar Burton will be touring across North America for LeVar Burton Reads Podcast beginning on October 31st, and he'll be making a single appearance at Toronto's Hot Docs Podcast Festival for a live read on November 2nd.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
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