During an interview for CBS Sunday Morning filmed on Thursday, Star Trek: The Next Generation actor LeVar Burton spoke out about the racism that still exists in the United States. In the conversation about his career and his social justice work with journalist Mo Rocca, Burton said that America still hasn’t addressed the social justice issues caused by slavery and its legacies.
“Slavery still exists today. Mass incarcerations of young men of color, the relationship between the Black community and law enforcement, and all of these social issues, are rooted in slavery. And America is still grappling with that.”
This is far from the first time that Burton has spoken out about the impacts of slavery and racism in the country. In fact, he’s been an activist for decades.
Acting Inspired his Activism
Though Star Trek fans know Burton as Lieutenant Geordi LaForge, one of his most recognizable roles has nothing to do with the Trek universe. Arguably his most memorable role was his first, Kunta Kinte in the miniseries Roots. According to PBS, Burton was still in theater school when he landed the role. He had no television experience at all, yet he handled the difficult and nuanced role beautifully.
Roots inspired the rest of Burton’s career and fueled his personal activism. During a talk at Gettysburg College in 2016, Burton said that filming the miniseries and watching how it was received by the public taught him that storytelling has the power to change the world. The story he helped tell with Roots sparked a conversation about racism and slavery that wasn’t happening before. These experiences encouraged him to continue telling stories that could spark change both through his acting and as the host of Reading Rainbow.
Burton has continued this frank conversation about racism through his acting and through social justice work for many years. Recently, he launched a video series on YouTube called “This Is My Story,” which focuses on personal experiences with racism in America. In the series, Burton shares some of his own stories as well as the stories of other Black folks.
Representation in the Trek Universe
In an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos in 2014, Burton said that he’d loved Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) when he was a kid. One of the things he loved most about the show was Lieutenant Uhura’s presence on the bridge.
“In Gene’s vision there was a place for me, and that meant a lot,” Burton said.
So, when he got a chance to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation, he was thrilled by the opportunity to represent Black folks in space as Nichelle Nichols had in TOS. In an interview on CBC Radio’s show Q in 2018, Burton talked about how important it was for him to carry on this legacy.
“I felt a responsibility, having been an enormous fan of the original series, Star Trek… 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… 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.”
Burton talks about the importance of Star Trek’s representation every time he’s given the chance because it meant so much to him as a Black boy and it means so much to him now as a Black man.
Burton’s full conversation with Rocca is set to air this Sunday, February 28th, on CBS. It will also stream on CBS All Access.
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