LeVar Burton has had a storied career as an actor, director, and storyteller. He played Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Kunta Kinte in Roots, and hosted Reading Rainbow.
Burton has returned to his role as a storyteller with his podcast LeVar Burton Reads and is currently on tour doing live shows. During a recent interview on that tour with CBC Radio’s arts program Q, Burton took time to look back on how Star Trek has influenced his life, specifically on how Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek vision affected him as a child.
“I felt a responsibility, having been an enormous fan of the original series, Star Trek,” Burton said. “I’m a huge fan of the science fiction genre, always have been. Science fiction is my go-to body of literature for just pure pleasure and enjoyment. When I want to read something for me, it’s generally science fiction or fantasy. Star Trek was one of the very few representations of the future I encountered as a kid where people who looked like me were represented. So in an era in my and in America where it was rare to see black people on TV except on the nightly news during the Vietnam War era when most of the soldiers we were sending to the theater of were black kids, Star Trek was huge. What Gene Roddenberry, as a storyteller, was saying to me was, ‘When the future comes, there’s a place for you.’ That was...it’s hard to underestimate the power that seeing oneself reflected in the popular culture, what impact it has. It validates you. Absent seeing yourself represented, or people who are like you represented in popular culture, you are sent a very dangerous message, a message that says, ‘You don’t matter,’ that you’re not important. So you know, quite naturally, I clung onto that example of black people in the future.”
The impact that Star Trek had on his life even before joining The Next Generation may be why Burton was at this year's Emmy Awards to represent Star Trek: The Next Generation while the franchise itself received the Governors Award.
Burton goes on to say that the lack of diversity has continued to be an issue in sci-fi and fantasy, though he does not a shift in recent years.
“Until fairly recently, certainly in literature,’ Burton says. “There was an explosion now of African futurism or Afrofuturism. Diverse voices from people of color have really begun to infiltrate the speculative fiction realm in a very powerful and dynamic way. It’s so exciting for a kid coming from Sacramento in California who used to read science fiction on his bed in the summertime to where we now with NK Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Lesley Nneka Arimah, all of these amazing writers, all of these great and diverse voices coming to the forefront. It’s really exciting.”
Be sure to listen to the full interview, in which Burton goes into more depth on his life and the importance of storytelling and representation.
How has Star Trek affected your life? Let us know in the comments!