A keynote speaker at RootsTech’s first-ever African Heritage Day, LeVar Burton taught us about storytelling and reaching hearts and minds. By the end, he also had us all reaching for tissues.
This isn’t another report on my fabulous time at the RootsTech genealogy conference. It’s a testimony on how great storytelling can change perspectives. I just hope I can do it justice.
You might remember LeVar Burton as the host and executive producer of Reading Rainbow; or as the blind chief engineer Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, who wore a VISOR which allowed him to see more than his sighted crew-mates; or as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 Roots mini-series based on Alex Haley’s novel.
“From the very beginning it seemed my life was destined to revolve around storytelling,” said Burton. Indeed. His work demonstrates how storytelling can change lives.
LeVar Burton Taught Us that Important Stories Start at Home
Surprisingly, though it shouldn’t be, he started with the lessons and stories he learned from his mother, Irma Jean Christian. How she taught him, by words and example, what he could achieve. “I am the man I am because my mother was the woman she was,” he said.
He always saw his mother reading. However, she didn’t always tell him happily-ever-after-tales. She taught him that he could achieve his dreams, but didn’t say it would be easy. His life would be “fraught with injustice.”
“She knew that the world would be hostile to my presence simply because of the color of my skin,” he said. An Education (his voice implied the capital “E”) would level the playing field with his “melanin-challenged classmates.”
“Irma Jean is one of the most powerful people I’ve ever known,” said Burton. “Next year I’ll be sixty and I’m still afraid of that woman.”
Great Stories Depict “People Like Us” as Heroes
Back in the 1960s, the problem was, that if you were black, few, if any, heroes looked like you did . It was rare for a black man to star on a TV show.
However, growing up, science fiction literature had connected him with the power to imagine. “That,” he said, “is our super power as human beings. It is our stories that have always provided us the context of who we are and where we are going and …. our uniquely human destination.”
When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry convinced him that there was a place for him “in the future,” Burton reveled in the opportunity to help viewers re-imagine the role of black men in society. “I cannot impress on you enough,” he said, “just how important it is for us to see ourselves represented in the popular culture in order for a healthy self-image to be formed and developed.”
Of course, not everything was serious. “There are no pockets in the future,” he quipped. “I know. I’ve been there.”
Storytelling is in our DNA
Through his speech, LeVar Buron taught us that figuring out where we come from via stories is part of that DNA. “We all truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Each child is an accepted child of the Creator and worthy dignity granted to each human being.” Each child also deserves to know the story of their ancestors.
He credits Alex Haley’s story of Kunta Kinte’s quest to find his roots with shifting the American perspective on slavery. Haley not only told a “timeless tale of the indomitably of the human spirit.” It transformed America in eight nights, as that story was brought to life in Americans’ living rooms.
“There was an America before Roots and an America as after Roots,” said Burton, “and they weren’t the same y’all. Before Roots America could tell itself that [slavery] was a justifiable economic mechanism. After, it became impossible to think of slavery without visualizing what was a done to a race.”
After a short clip of the slave owner whipping Kunte for escaping and refusing to adopt the slave owner’s preferred name of Toby played, Burton’s voice broke when he talked about what happened to his ancestors. For every slave that made it to the United States, 40 others died, tethered to people that didn’t speak their language.
LeVar Burton Taught Us the Power of Showing Emotions
More correctly, he demonstrated it.
At the end of the speech, Burton was clearly moved by the standing ovation. The waterworks, however, truly started on and off stage when Thom Reed, senior marketing manager from FamilySearch, joined Burton on stage and presented him with a binder of family history research.
Burton’s voice held unmistakable reverence as he accepted the binder. “These are my people.”
You could hear Burton’s intake of breath with Thom flashed a copy of his grandparent’s marriage license on the huge screen. Then Thom pointed out the signature of Willis Ward—handwriting Burton had never seen before. Burton’s “What?!” moved the audience of thousands in ways his articulate speech never could.
We were watching a man connect with his roots, in real time. There was no question that something inside of him suddenly felt more complete. Chills ran up my arms. In fact, as I type, they do so again.
When Thom showed Burton a map of Mississippi and the names of his ancestors who were born into slavery there, yet lived to see emancipation, an awe fell over the room filled with thousands. Whatever our ancestry, we got the magnitude of what Burton was experiencing.
My Turn – Our Turn
In an interview with Salt Lake City’s KSL News, Burton referred to his experience at RootsTech as a day that would change his life forever.
He’s not the only one that felt that way. I won’t quickly forget the lessons LeVar Burton taught us that Friday.
I was already a fan, lover of Reading Rainbow and StarTrek. I’d come with an iPhone loaded with pictures of my son’s third grade submission to a Reading Rainbow book contest—Billy Bob’s Vacation to Utah—hoping I might be able to show it to Burton and thank him for inspiring my then I-can’t-sit-still-for-more-than-five-minutes eight-year-old to write and illustrate it. I didn’t. But I got something better.
RootsTech’s African Heritage Day, and LeVar Burton’s speech in particular, helped me understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of the descendants of slavery and feel a yearning to know dark and hidden stories. It also gave me optimism, that the descendants of slave-owners can help descendants of slaves have that type of moment, when they look at a document and think, “Those are my people.”
That’s a story I want to be part of.