Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s LeVar Burton was profiled in this week’s episode of CBS Sunday Morning. In the episode, Burton reflected on his career, considered how he fit into Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of the future, and espoused the power of television, which he calls, “Simply the most powerful medium in the history of civilization for communicating thoughts, ideas and stories.” In the profile, he goes on to talk about how Fred Rogers, his mentor, convinced him to use television for good in shows like Reading Rainbow. Burton, a science fiction fan, was delighted to join Star Trek: The Next Generation after being profoundly encouraged by Star Trek: The Original Series.
“Gene Roddenberry’s vision was one that included me and people who looked like me,” Burton said. “It meant that when the future comes, there’s a place for you.”
Finding his place meant learning some new acting tricks. It wasn’t easy to communicate how Geordi La Forge felt when his eyes were covered by a visor.
“That’s what I had to figure out,” he says. I used my body. I used my voice. I really had to develop other ways of communicating everything that I wanted the audience to know about that character.”
In 2018, Burton discussed the responsibility he felt carrying on Roddenberry’s legacy. “I felt a responsibility, having been an enormous fan of the original series, Star Trek,” Burton said during a CBC radio interview. “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.”