LeVar Burton thinks his purpose in life is to provide solutions to persisting educational crises in America. For 23 seasons, he was the soft spoken host and executive producer of the PBS program Reading Rainbow. The show featured field trips and rotating celebrity narrators reading audiobook style, motivating millions of youth and families to take pride in reading and using their imagination.
The memorable Emmy- and Peabody award-winning series cemented its place in television history as the third-longest running children’s program. Six years following the show’s 2006 cancellation, Reading Rainbow made its transition over to digital as one of the first apps available exclusively for the iPad (now Kindle Fire and Android, too). Burton simultaneously launched an interactive portal, RRKIDZ.
RRKIDZ’s Skybrary includes interactive books, games and virtual field trips. Reading Rainbow’s crowdfunding campaign in 2014 exceeded its $1 million fundraising goal in only 11 hours, raising over $5 million in 35 days from over 100,000 contributors. Also the co-owner of the rights to Reading Rainbow, Burton’s passion for literacy stems from his mother, an English teacher.
Reading was mandatory in their household. Burton thinks being an avid reader throughout life helped to shape and inform his own experiences and outlook on the world. “If you have the facility of literature at your disposal,” says Burton speaking in his unforgettable television voice, “you can discover and discern the truth for yourself. Reading and our ability to engage our imaginations is the unique superpower that human beings have.”
Also famous for portraying the visually impaired, VISOR-wearing Lt. Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Burton recently appeared at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History’s (ASALH) centennial conference in Atlanta. The veteran actor announced that the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots was being remade. Burton portrayed author Alex Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte, which earned him an Emmy nod.
Roots was Burton’s first professional audition and acting debut. At the time, he was a 19-year-old sophomore on a scholarship at USC’s School of Theatre. The new Roots will broadcast simultaneously on Lifetime, A&E and The History Channel in 2017. Burton initially had reservations about the historic television moment being updated. The Grammy award-winner had a change of heart after speaking with the upcoming version’s executive producer Mark Wolper.
Mark Wolper, whose father, David L. Wolper produced the original telecast, attempted to show Roots to his children. The young people thought the story didn’t directly affect them. Burton, who contributed the voice of Kwame to the animated Captain Planet franchise, perceived Wolper’s dilemma as a generational disconnect between baby boomers and millennials.
“For this generation, Roots is the house band on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show instead of the story of our common history in America,” says Burton, a multiple NAACP Image award recipient. “It’s time to tell the story. Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s time we re-engage each other in this important conversation that we genuinely believe can lead to healing.”
The Roots remake was originally slated to air in 2016, but the decision was made to take time and develop a strong film. Another reason for revitalizing Roots, Burton says, is to reintroduce viewers and youth to Haley’s legacy. An advocate of great storytelling, Burton, who evolved into a sought after episodic television director, hopes that the made-for-TV movie’s update will spark dialogue spanning generations.
“We want to make sure we do this story right and fully,” says Burton. “Slavery is the original sin that America has never acknowledged. We will once again begin to create a conversation in this culture about how the past informs our present and what we can do in this new moment to move forward.”
Reading Rainbow, Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation collectively make up what Burton says is a “pretty cool trifecta.” He’s most proud of Reading Rainbow’s cultural impact mainly because it married literature to real world experiences. He’s working to develop a classroom version for instructors and web version for home use.
Reiterating how blessed he has been throughout his close to four-decade career, a chuckling Burton, a Hollywood Walk of Fame recipient, reaffirms that educating audiences with positive programming is his greatest contribution to society and culture.
“We consume television content so differently than we did in 1977,” says Burton. “Reading Rainbow and my work in childhood literacy is the most important thing I’ll ever do. When Roots airs in 2017, we encourage you to gather in front of a cold fire of television and share in our common story.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.