LeVar Burton fires up Augsburg fans for literacy

Actor/producer announces remake of Roots

LeVar Burton
LeVar Burton


On Saturday, February 13, from 1-2 pm, author, educator, producer, director and actor LeVar Burton, well known for his debut acting role as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 award-winning television miniseries Roots based on the novel written by Alex Haley, was the keynote speaker for the Augsburg College annual scholarship weekend of activities.

Burton also played Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek the Next Generation, and was the executive producer and beloved host of the long-running PBS children’s series Reading Rainbow. The theme for Burton’s afternoon message was, “You Can Do Anything: The importance of education, innovation and creativity.”

Each year, the best and brightest prospective Augsburg students are invited by the college to participate in Scholarship Weekend. Students participate in a range of activities such as connecting with faculty and current students, competing for top scholarships, and attending the Scholarship Weekend lecture to hear a marquee name speaker. In previous years the Dalai Lama and Bill Nye “The Science Guy” were speakers.

The doors opened at around 11:45 am, and by 12:15 fans were lining up with excitement anticipating Burton’s arrival. Burton’s broad fan base ranges from baby boomer parents and grandparents who knew him as defiant slave Kunta Kinte in Roots to adults who grew up learning how to read from watching Reading Rainbow. Though no one showed up in Star Trek gear, devoted Trekkies were in the house for Burton as well.

“We drove seven hours last night to get here,” said longtime fan Emily Demuth Ishida from the Chicago area, who found out about the event from two Augsburg alumni, her son and daughter-in-law. “I came just to see Levar Burton.”

LeVar Burton
LeVar Burton

Burton began his message talking about the importance of education and literacy, then later made a case for integrating science, technology, engineering and math with the arts and reading.

“Education is the key to freedom,” said Burton. “No one can oppress you and no one can impose their point of view on you. I believe that literacy is the birthright of every single one of us on this planet, no exceptions,” he told the 1,000-plus captivated audience.

He spoke about how his passion for storytelling was influenced by his mother, Erma Jean Christen, who always had a book in her hand. He proudly spoke of her determination as inspiration, graduating from Kansas University at age 17. She was first an English teacher, then a social worker, and earned her master’s degree at night while working fulltime and raising three children as a single parent.

“For 33 years it has been my joy, my passion, it has been my mission in life to create dangerous individuals who love the written word,” said Burton, “people who refuse to take anybody’s word for it. It has been my conscious intention to help turn children who can’t read into readers for life. Knowing that fulfilling one’s highest potential, where that is concerned, it is literacy. That is the key.”

Burton said in this digital age the definition of literacy has to continue to evolve, explaining that literacy should be more than fluency in reading and writing, but should include fluency in critical thinking and the ability to communicate complex ideas in a simple form. He proposed expanding the STEM acronym to STREAM, including R for Reading and A for the Arts.

“Now, including technology and the arts in the mix is a no-brainer, because we are talking about a well-rounded approach to how we educate our children. So given the world in which we’re living and the speed at which that world is changing, making sure that our children are literate in STREAM makes sense to me,” said Burton.

Burton talked about his love of science fiction and said that imagination gives humans superpowers. He asked, “Any Star Trek fans in the audience?” Almost the entire crowd shouted “Yeah!”

“My people!” Burton replied. He spoke about how Star Trek may have influenced the imagination of some viewers with examples like the flip telephone used by Captain Kirk, the IPod, and the Bluetooth worn in the ear of Lt. Uhura. Burton said he’s convinced that the late Steve Jobs had to have watched the program.

Burton said it was Star Trek’s producer Gene Roddenberry that helped him see himself as part of the future because of the inclusion of Lt. Uhura, the only Black woman in the original TV series, played by actress Nichelle Nichols. Nichols’ character was someone Burton said he could identify with, someone who looked like him.

Burton made an announcement of the remake of Roots, set for Memorial Day 2016 and featuring actors Laurence Fishburne and Forest Whitaker, which Burton is producing. As for a Reading Rainbow comeback, he says it may not show up on PBS, but thanks to 105,857 people on funding website Kickstarter who have pledged $5,408,916 dollars, Reading Rainbow is back via their very own web-based digital library called Skybrary. For more information, go to www.readingrainbow.com.


James L. Stroud, Jr. welcomes reader responses to jlswriter@gmail.com.