by RILEY GOLDEN//Entertainment Editor
LeVar Burton has been all over the galaxy as Commander Geordi La Forge, experienced the history of slavery as Kunta Kinte, and taught children the importance of reading.
Burton’s breakout role was playing African American slave, Kunta Kinte, in 1977, before hosting “Reading Rainbow” from 1983 to 2006 and began working with Gene Roddenberry on the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” television series in 1986.
On Feb. 7, LeVar Burton visited the Allen Theater of Texas Tech University in Lubbock to lecture for Texas Tech’s Black History Month lecture series.
Burton began with a standard, “good evening,” but got such a mild response from the crowd that it needed a follow up.
“I am here to speak, this evening, about my mother Erma Jean Christian, and among the many things I learned from my mother, Erma Jean, is that it is always appropriate to speak when spoken to.”
“And so, I’ll say again, good evening,” said Burton. “Good evening,” the crowd bellowed back.
“I want to begin this evening with a question,” said Burton. “And my question is, how many of you are familiar with the term, ‘raisin in the oatmeal’?”
Burton explained that ‘raisin in the oatmeal’ is a euphemism for “the only black person in a situation surrounded by white people.”
“Well, that’s my childhood in a nutshell,” he explained. “Growing up, I was generally the only black kid, if not the only one of very few black children in any and every social situation I encountered.”
Burton explained that in school, in Boy Scouts, or at summer camp, he was always bringing, “the flavor to the otherwise vanilla-nature of the oatmeal that was my ordinary life.”
“And I am not ashamed to say that it was not necessarily, always a comfortable fit, either,” he added.
Burton went on to explain that he was an army brat, which meant that he moved around a lot. He specifically spoke about a time that his family moved to Sacramento, Calif., and how all the students and coaches at his new school wanted him to play on the baseball team without having any idea of his skills.
Burton is a self-proclaimed bookworm, not an athlete, and it wasn’t until after his first game of baseball that his coach asked him why he didn’t tell anyone that he couldn’t play.
“With the sense that I had let everyone down, I replied, “no one ever asked me,” said Burton. “You see, everyone on the team, adults and children alike, had assumed that simply because I was Black, that I had naturally possessed athletic prowess. The raisin in the oatmeal.”
Burton says that this instance was an early lesson on racial politics in America, then started talking about his mother, reading, and his childhood.
“In my childhood, it was my mother who first introduced me to the magical properties of storytelling,” he said. “It is from her that I have inherited my passion for stories and storytelling, because, you see, my mother is and always has been a voracious reader. She generally reads two or three books at a time, sometimes more. So, in addition to reading to me as 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 breathing.”
Burton is so grateful for his mother that he says, “Whenever I have the opportunity to speak my mother’s name in public, I do. Erma Gene Christian, that is my mother’s name. You see, because I believe that I am the man I am because she is the woman she is.”
It is from his mother that Burton says he inherited his love for literature. He said he believes he easily could have ended up another statistic if it wasn’t for her.
Burton moved on to talk about how rare it was to see Black people in the pictures of his sci-fi books and on television in the 1980s, citing how important it was for him to see Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise while he was growing up. “Star Trek” showed Burton that there was a place for him in the future.
“I cannot impress upon you enough just how important it is for us to see ourselves represented in the popular culture in order for us to develop a healthy self-image,” said Burton. “That’s why I believe that last year’s Oscars controversy is so important for us all to consider, because absent exposure to the healthy reflections of one’s self in culture, a child is sent a powerful message, a message that says you are not important, you do not matter.”
Burton continued to talk about his love and appreciation for science fiction, believing that it gives humans the ability to contemplate the “what if?” According to Burton, this is the question that gives way to all of the advancements that the human race has made, citing Captain Kirk’s communicator as one of the earliest concepts of a flip cellphone.
“See, the link between what we imagine, and what we create, is inextricable,” said Burton. “We carried iPads around on the Enterprise before they were even invented!”
Burton believes storytelling is ingrained in human beings and has the ability to connect us to not only the future, but the past as well.
“Forty years ago, [Alex] Haley’s family story told through the eyes of his ancestors literally shifted the consciousness of this nation,” said Burton. “Over eight consecutive nightly installments, it served to reset our national frame of reference around 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 ethnicity.”
From a child watching “Star Trek” and reading science-fiction, to portraying a young slave, and exploring the galaxy aboard the Enterprise, Burton attributes much of his success to his mother, Erma Gene, and the importance of reading and storytelling that she instilled in him.
[Photos by RILEY GOLDEN/PLAINSMAN PRESS]