My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

October 26, 2022: PBS People: LeVar Burton

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On why the host of another iconic PBS show was as important as the content.

The first two posts in this series have focused on figures connected to the two longest-running PBS children’s shows, Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; the third longest-running was Reading Rainbow, which aired from July 1983 to November 2006 (and has since been reborn as a very successful app). I’m not sure how many of those episodes this young AmericanStudier actually watched—ours wasn’t a household where the TV was on every afternoon after school by any means—but it was enough that the phrase “If you want to know the rest, read the book!” has become thoroughly ingrained in my consciousness (and has made it onto this blog at least once and into my teaching way more than that). Obviously for the voracious young reader that I was (I may have been known, and indeed known all too well, to wander the halls of my middle and high school with my nose in a book), it was the books at the center of Reading Rainbow that made it so memorable. But in looking back, I think nothing about Reading Rainbow was more memorable and meaningful than the show’s host (and executive producer), LeVar Burton.

Burton had been acting in films and TV shows for nearly a decade by the time he landed the Reading Rainbow gig, and would continue to do so throughout his run as host; probably his best-known role, as Geordi on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), not only coincided with some of the early years of Rainbow but was even featured on an episode of the PBS show! But while Geordi might be Burton’s most prominent role, as is often the case when even the most established actors venture into the Star Trek universe, it was definitely not his most influential: that title would have to go to just his second screen performance, as the young Kunta Kinte in the TV miniseries Roots (based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book of the same name). Roots debuted in 1977, when Burton was just 20 years old, and he would be nominated for an Emmy for his compelling performance as the lead character in that sweeping, multi-generational, historical and historic, truly groundbreaking and important cultural work. In an era when we’ve finally started to see a wide variety of cultural representations of slavery (and many other too-long-underrepresented histories), it might be difficult to recognize just how significant Roots was in the 1970s (and into the 80s and 90s). But it was, and Burton was at the heart of it.

That is of course an argument for remembering Burton well beyond Reading Rainbow (or Star Trek, for that matter). But it’s also an argument for kind of the opposite point: that the choice of Burton in 1983 (just six years after Roots) to host Reading Rainbow, to serve as the face of this iconic educational show for children everywhere, was a genuinely striking and impressive one. Again, it can be hard to look back on that moment without our hindsight being affected by just how beloved Burton became and remains (just note the huge, viral campaign to make him the new host of Jeopardy! after Alex Trebek passed away in November 2020). But in 1983, he was simply an African American actor, best known for his role in the most prominent cultural representation of slavery specifically and African American history more broadly (at least if we set aside really, really problematic ones like Gone with the Wind) that had yet aired in the United States. The choice of that actor and performer, that artistic figure, to host a PBS children’s show about the importance and pleasures of reading was, to my mind, one of the most inspiringly inclusive in TV history, and one that clearly has echoed into the four decades since.

Next PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?

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