Burton still trying to improve world

LeVar Burton was a hero on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” But in the 1960s, he was just a kid sitting in front of the TV, getting inspiration from the original “Star Trek.”

“It was a multiracial cast in the middle of the Cold War,” Burton says of that first “Star Trek.”

“We had a Russian. We had an Asian man. We had a black woman — all part of the command structure. That was really unusual and revolutionary.”

When Burton grew up, he was cast as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge. This Thursday through Sunday at the Rio, he and other “Trek” stars will meet fans again during the annual “Star Trek” convention.

We now take for granted black actors, and even a black president. But life was very different for Burton’s family during the original “Star Trek” run in 1967-69.

Burton’s father, an Army photographer, was from outside Little Rock, Ark. — where in the 1950s white people assaulted black children for going to school.

Burton’s mom, an English teacher and social worker from Missouri, moved to California because she was looking for a place of intellectual equals, a place she could safely raise LeVar and two daughters.

“And California in the ’50s and ’60s was the new golden land for black people — for really forward-thinking black people like my mother,” he says.

So there in California, Burton watched Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a human future absent of divisiveness over color, gender, heritage or orientation.

“I could certainly recognize all of the conflict and violence and strife of the Civil Rights movement in the ’60s — that I lived through,” Burton says.

“It was even more important for me as a young black man to find reinforcement of the validity of my existence through popular culture. ‘Star Trek’ really was the positive aspect of that.

“I was looking for an anchor of sanity, and Gene Roddenberry’s vision was that anchor of sanity.”

A decade later, Burton was attending USC’s theater school when he earned the lead role of young Kunta Kinte in the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots.”

To put it mildly, “Roots” was the most important miniseries of all time, depicting black American experiences over the centuries, greatly touching TV viewers of all heritages.

Then in 1983, Burton began hosting PBS’ “Reading Rainbow.” That show was canceled a few years ago. But Burton turned “Reading Rainbow” into a best-selling app for children (@LeVarBurton and readingrainbow.com).

Burton works tirelessly promoting “Reading Rainbow.” What does he get out of it?

“Knowing I’m fulfilling my purpose in life,” he says.

“I literally share DNA with a people for whom education was illegal. It was an offense punishable by whipping, if not followed by death.

“Just to put this into perspective, if I may: ‘Roots’ was my first audition at the age of 19, and I got that gig. And I’m 56 now. So I spent the last 36 years of my life being ‘LeVar Burton.’

“In the course of that journey, I have worked really, really, really hard to be absolutely OK with who I am, and to know I am honoring my mother and her sacrifices — and all of her ancestors, as far as you want to go, and assuring them with everything I do that I am paying forward the debt of their sacrifice.”

I tell him that’s a heavy charge he has given himself.

“If nobody is willing to take responsibility, then nothing will ever get freaking done,” he says. “So I’m standing up. I’m 56. I’m an elder now. It takes a village to raise a child. Where are the elders?”

Doug Elfman’s column appears Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He also writes for Neon on Fridays. Email him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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