LeVar Burton, host of Reading Rainbow, speaks to students about importance of literacy


It was dark, windy and snowing on Wednesday night when I sat down with LeVar Burton to interview him before he went onstage at 7 p.m. to speak in the Wool Ballroom. Burton lives in California and travelled to St. Louis from another appearance at a school in Texas.

I made a silly comment about the weather. “I’m sorry you had to come from warm weather to this,” I joked, trying to break the ice, “It was just 65 degrees here yesterday.” He seemed surprised by this comment. He didn’t shudder or nod in agreement. “I mean it’s cold,” he said instead, “but it’s not bad.”

It was with this same matter-of-fact optimism that Burton delivered his speech, titled “Storytelling: Spoken, Written, Lived”, to SLU students and other community members. Burton was hosted by SLU’s Great Issues Committee, and his appearance was sponsored by the English department. Burton is best known for hosting the long-running show “Reading Rainbow,” for playing Kunta Kinte in “Roots” and for playing Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

In every aspect of his career, Burton’s love of storytelling is clear. “Storytelling has always provided for us a context of who we are,” Burton said. “We are natural-born storytellers, human beings… I’ve spent my life developing storytelling skills in different mediums: film, television, stage, spoken, written, acted out… Storytelling is the river in which I swim.”

“Reading Rainbow” is the part of Burton’s career that most college-aged students will recognize, and it is the project of which he is most proud. When it began in the 1980s, “Reading Rainbow” was meant to bring the magic of books to television. Rather than prying kids away from the entertainment and technology that they tended to gravitate towards, “Reading Rainbow” hoped to meet those children at the television set and to bring the books to them there. Now, its newest chapter, the “Reading Rainbow Skybrary,” brings that same thing to even newer kinds of technology.

Instead of television, the Skybrary is accessible via the web and available as an app. It is a digital library of interactive books accompanied by “video field trips” that call back to the educational outings aired on the original television show.

According to Burton, the Skybrary is the number one educational app for Apple products.

The importance of education and literacy is Burton’s chief concern. “Literacy is the birthright of every single one of us,” Burton said in his speech.

He spoke extensively of his mother’s efforts to encourage him to read. “I always say, in my mother’s house, you either read a book or you were hit in the head with one,” he joked.

She taught him that, “because of the color of my skin, my life would be fraught with injustice and with frustration towards that injustice…but she also taught me that I had the power to overcome all of that. There were no limits on what I could accomplish in life except those that I imposed upon myself.”

He spoke of the importance of instilling young children with this sense of limitlessness through the power of storytelling. He referred to humans’ ability for imagination as our superpower and noted that it can be a source of self-fulfilling inspiration. “We carried iPads around the Enterprise before they were even invented! You think Steve Jobs wasn’t a “Star Trek”  fan?” he joked. He also noted that there is a company in California that is working right now to invent the visor that his “Star Trek” character Geordi La Forge wears to subdue his blindness.

Soon, because of that inspiration, that very visor may be a reality.

Burton argued that this imagination must be inspired by stories in which all kinds of children are able to see heroes and heroines that look like them. Burton spoke of his own experience as a black man and how rarely he saw protagonists who were representative of him. “I grew up in a time where, if we saw black people on television, we’d literally call each other,” he said.

When it aired in 1977, “Roots,” a miniseries that told the story of a family of slaves descended from African Kunta Kinte, was revolutionary. “I watched as eight nights of television transformed the American consciousness,” Burton said.

He praised the 2016 reboot of the series, pointing out that “Roots” tells a story that still needs to be told. “We will never be able to advance to our highest level of expression unless we deal with the past [of being a slaveholding nation]. And we haven’t yet. So we have to continue to tell the story until it sinks in at a deep enough level, [and]penetrates through to the consciousness of this nation sufficiently enough to open its eyes. And its heart.”

At the end of his speech, Burton took questions from the audience. Many of them corresponded to the most political parts of his speech. In his answers, Burton denounced Betsy DeVos, encouraged staying informed and stressed the importance of artists getting involved. “If you want to march, march. If you want to write, write. If you want to act, act,” he said. “Rise the f–k up!”

He spoke, finally, of the dangers of ignorance and his lifelong efforts to combat it. “For 34 years it has been my passion to create dangerous individuals who love the written word,” he smiled as he referenced the well-known tagline of the end of each “Reading Rainbow” episode: “Individuals who won’t ‘take anybody’s word for it’–not even mine.”

When I spoke to him before his speech, I told him how well this goal of his had been manifested in me. I watched “Reading Rainbow” nearly every day as a child.

“You still reading?” he asked me.

I said yes and told him that between studying English and journalism, storytelling has been the focus of my undergraduate studies.

He laughed heartily and finished by saying. “It worked.”

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