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LeVar Burton delivered this message at RootsTech 2017. Can there be a more anguishing cruelty than stealing someone’s identity and erasing his history? Can there be a greater gift than teaching someone his identity and teaching the stories of his past and legacy?
LeVar Burton, who is beloved for his roles as the host on PBS’s long-running Reading Rainbow and Geordi La Forge on Star Trek got his start when he was chosen in his first-ever professional audition for the starring role as Kunte Kinte in the 1977 award-winning television mini-series Roots.
Nineteen years old and green as an actor, he snagged the role in what would become not just a meaningful story, but instead a shared experience that would rivet American society and leave it forever changed. At the same time, Roots taught us all the magical power of story telling to impact a family and a nation.
Burton said, “It was Alex Haley’s family story, told through the eyes of his ancestors, that literally, over eight consecutive, nightly installments, served to reset our national reference over what we mean when we talk about slavery in America.
“Roots gave us the unvarnished truth about the inhumane cruelty of our slave-holding past and the irreparable damage that was systematically inflicted on an entire race of people. There was an America before Roots and there was an America after the Roots, and they were not the same America.
“Once America was able to tell itself the story that slavery was a justifying, even necessary economic mechanism, that it allowed this country to arise to the power that it is today on the world’s stage. After Roots it became impossible to even think about slavery without visualizing its impact on the African people who were so unjustly enslaved. And all of that was accomplished with one family’s story.
“No matter what aspect of the color spectrum your skin reflects, if you are old enough to have been a member of that unprecedented, record-shatterng viewing audience that tuned in for Roots, you will remember what it felt like to be connected.”
“Millions of us…members of the same human race, were engaged and enraptured by the telling of a timeless tale of the indomitable power of the human spirit.”
What was the nature of this story? It wasn’t just the agonizing, systematic cruelty inflicted on Africans who were kidnapped, slammed into a dense-pack like meat in a hold of ship. It wasn’t only that 1/3 of them lost their lives on the sea voyage or were bought and sold as so many commodities. In addition, it was the stripping of these souls of their identity and expunging their past, the ultimate decimation of a human being.
LeVar Burton played Kunte Kinte with that sense of anguish on his face, while the slave-holder renames him Toby and insists that he forget everything that made him human, peeling his identity from him like flesh off the bones.
During his talk, Burton played a scene from Roots film, where Kunte is strung up, while the overseer snarls:
“Your name is Toby. I want to hear you say it. Your name is Toby. You’re going to learn to say your name. What’s your name?”
“Kunte,” the young African insists. “Kunte Kinte.” Then he is lashed, the sound of a whip snapping repeatedly across his flesh, while blood spills down his back.
“When the master gives you something, you take it. He gave you a name. It’s a nice name. It’s Toby and it’s going to be yours until the day you die. I know you understand me and I want to hear it. I want to hear you say your name. It’s Toby.”
Again Kunte insists, “Kunte” and he is lashed again.
Finally, whipped until his head is drooping and his terrible moans rift the air, he finally can barely mutter, “My name is Toby.” The overseer thinks he has broken him, but another slave named Fiddler kneels down beside the boy when he has been cut down from the whipping post and whispers through tears, “Don’t you care what that white man call you You know who you be, Kunte. That’s who you always be. There’s going to be another day. You hear me. There’s going to be another day.”
Yet, if stripping someone of their identity pulverizes his soul, giving identity and history to a person empowers and grounds him. In contrast to the role Burton played in Roots, at the close of his talk FamilySearch gave him an irreplaceable gift—a copy of his genealogy going back to 1815—as far as it could be traced since the roots and records dissolve in Africa.
When Burton saw the names of his ancestors on a family tree, projected across the giant screen on the stage, many whose names he had never seen before, he began to weep, and throwing both arms in the air, he exulted, “These are my people. These are my people.”
It was a stunning moment, and for anyone who ever imagined that family history was useless, old stories and statistics that nobody wanted to hear, those thoughts were forever dispelled in the tears of an actor who is also an American icon.
Creating the World through Our Stories
He said, “Roots is a powerful example that we, all of us, truly stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us, those who sweat and shed blood and have even given the ultimate measure to ensure that their children and their children’s children might live in a world that values an individual not as a commodity to be bought and sold for labor but as an exceptional child of the Creator and worthy of the dignity and respect he deserves.”
Burton said, “We are a species designed to be creative as story tellers. It is in our DNA. We are part of an ancient storytelling continuum.
“It is through the stories that we tell each other, that we literally create the world as a reflection of who we are. It is our stories that have always provided our context for who we are, why we are here, where we are going, and what will my particular contribution be in the service of creating our uniquely human destination.”
The First Storyteller
He sees his life as having been shaped by three other storytellers besides Alex Haley. “In my childhood it was my mother who was my introduction to the magical properties of story telling. From her I have inherited my passion for story telling.”
Her name is Irma Jean Christian, and he said, “Whenever I have the opportunity to speak of my mother in public I do.
“I could easily have been one of those statistics with which we are all so familiar, a black male child, raised in a single-parent household, latch-key kid. My mom worked 9 to 5, five days a week but you see Irma Jean is a most powerful human being, one of the most powerful I know and she was determined that I would reach my full potential in life even if she had to kill me. Of course, I’m kidding–sort of.
“I am the man I am because my mother is the woman she is. My mother was a voracious reader. She generally reads two to three books at a time, sometimes more for her own pleasure. So in addition to reading to me when I was a child, I always saw my mother reading. She always had a book in her hand and so my childhood was steeped in the understanding that reading is as important to the survival of the human being as is breathing.
He said, “Irma Jean is about 4 feet, 10 ½ inches tall, weighs about 115-120 pounds. On my next birthday on Thursday, I will be 60 years old and I am still afraid of that woman. And I’m not kidding,” he said.
“The truth is my mother had standards. There were consequences if you failed to meet those standards and sometimes those consequences were painful. My mother had hopes for me and expectations. My mother had dreams for me and my mother knew fully well and first hand the value of being educated.
“My mother made it a priority to instill in me one of the most important values a human being can pass one to another. She taught me that there are no limits to what I could accomplish in life except those to what I myself impose. She instilled me the importance of education because she knew that in America a quality education is the ultimate leveler of the playing field.
“My mother knew that I would one day grow up and inherit a world that would sometimes be hostile to my presence simply because of the color of my skin. She knew that the best thing she could do for me in a world full of inequality was to provide me the tools so that I could complete on a more level playing field with my melanin-challenged classmates. That’s code for white people.”
He continued, “Irma Jean didn’t sugar coat it either. The story that my mother told me that my journey in life wasn’t destined to be an easy one. The truth was that as a black male in America my life would be fraught with injustice, and frustration with the unfairness of that injustice. She told me that my journey would be perilous at times, sometimes dangerous, but as her son she assured me that I had the ability to persevere through it all.
“The story told me that my mother told me and the story that I in turn embraced as my own was that I was capable of triumph over any adversity and that it was my right to determine my destiny and myself.”
Though Burton’s mother had a MSW and worked at her career during the day, she waited tables at night to help him pay to obtain his acting degree.
Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek was, according to Burton, an amazing story teller and visionary. He said, “When I was growing up it was rare for me to see depictions in the science fiction that I read of people who looked like me. Television was hardly better in terms of reflecting a world that was a racially diverse as the one I lived in every day.”
Yet, seeing a black woman on the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise, “was a huge for me because you know what Roddenberry was saying to me? There was a place for me when the future came.
“I cannot impress upon you enough just how important it was to see ourselves represented in the popular culture in order for a healthy self-image to be formed.
Absent exposure to healthy reflections, a child is sent a very powerful message. You are not important. You do not matter.”
He said the story telling of Star Trek also connected him with others because of “that uniquely human ability we all possess—our power to imagine. Our imaginative power, our ability to project ourselves into a past or future moment outside and apart from this now moment of existence, that is our super power as human beings. No other species can do that. It is our imagination that causes us to be able to conceptualize, devise and design any and every manner of invention or idea that has ever propelled us forward on our human journey…I believe that two of our most important words in combination in our language are the words what if? What if?”
Once Burton was at a White House Conference with Fred Rogers where heads of studios and networks had come together to examine the effects of television on children.
“As you can imagine,” he said, “a lot of egos were at the table and when it came time for Fred to speak he did this amazing and remarkable thing. He asked everyone to close their eyes and bring into their mind a person who had seen their potential and helped them to realize what their gift, their contribution to the world might be. Think of someone who saw you, who recognized your brilliance,” Rogers said.
Burton summed up, “We none of us get through this thing called life on our own. We all need to have assistance on this journey. In my 60 years of experience, I have never encountered a solution to being human that makes more sense to me than Be still, stand in love, and pay attention.
“We pay attention because if we’re not paying attention, we might miss something incredibly important that is key to our delivering our gift to the world.”