I just listened to an incredibly powerful, emotional and wonderful presentation. LeVar Burton was one of today’s keynotes at Rootstech. LeVar played Kunta Kinte in the 1977 version of Alex Haley’s Roots, starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation and for 23 years worked on Reading Rainbow.
He first spoke of his mother who introduced him to the magic of storytelling. She was always reading and always reading to him. She instilled in him the belief that he was able to triumph over any adversity.
He said that Gene Roddenberry was a fantastic storyteller. As a young boy it was rare for LeVar to see people on TV that looked like him. It was rare for him to see people like Clarence Williams III with his incredible Afro hair style on Mod Squad, and it was rare for him to see people like Diahann Carroll on Julia. So seeing Star Trek on TV was huge. Seeing Nichelle Nichols gave him the message to him that there was a place for people like him in the world to come.
Star Trek inspired people in so many ways. Seeing Captain Kirk flip open his communicator and say “Beam me up Scotty” must have been the inspiration for some engineer who later developed the flip-phone. Uhura’s ear piece must have inspired the Bluetooth ear pieces we see now. Technology to bring sight to the blind like Geordi’s Visor is currently under development.
“Our superpower is our imagination”, he said. “It connects us to our birthright as storytellers.” Those stories provide the context for who we are, why we are here ad where we are going.
LeVar Burton spoke of the profound effect that Alex Haley had on his life in 1977. Roots helped shift the focus of the nation’s consciousness and showed the unvarnished truth of the country’s slave holding past. “There was an America before Roots, and an America after Roots, and they were not the same America.” All this was accomplished by a program telling one family’s story which achieved record shattering viewing figures.
He spoke eloquently and powerfully in his rich and expressive voice. The host for the day, Nkoyo Iyamba returned to the stage as the audience gave LeVar a standing ovation. Her voice was cracking with emotion as she introduced Thom King from FamilySearch to give LeVar a special gift. They had researched his family tree.
Suddenly the eloquent man had gone, and a tearful and vulnerable man called out in an accent that was a throw-back to his youth “Is this what y’all do all day?”
Thom showed him the marriage certificate of his beloved grandmother Estelle Cain, who had always encouraged him and who was so proud to see him in Roots just before she died. Thom pointed out the signature of LeVar’s grandfather and the graceful man became even more emotional.
“We have managed to find two of your two-greats-grandparents and five of your three-greats-grandparents” said the giant Thom who towered over LeVar. He pointed out those who were born into slavery and witnessed emancipation.
“These are my people!” he cried out. Tears came from my eyes to join his and those of everyone in the hall.
That is what the impact of knowing your family does.