Ignyte Interview Series: LeVar Burton
The Ignyte Ember Award celebrates the unsung contributions of people in the speculative fiction community. Nominated in this year’s Ignytes, LeVar Burton is an Actor, Director, Educator & Cofounder of the award-winning Skybrary App, host and Executive Producer of PBS’s Reading Rainbow and lifelong children’s literacy advocate. He hosts the engaging LeVar Burton Reads which features stories from across genre by diverse authors. We are honored to count him among our finalists and have interviewed him here about his endeavors.
You’ve been in the entertainment industry for many years, playing many iconic characters but you’ve become the face of black people in the future as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek. What does it mean to you to have that distinction, to represent a future for black people that is not only in space but being the key engineering mind in that future?
I’m a huge Star Trek fan. When I was growing up Nichelle Nichols, as Lt.Uhura, was a rare and powerful example of representation on TV. Seeing her on the bridge of the Enterprise was critical in terms of my forming a healthy identity as Black person in America. To have become a part the Star Trek storytelling mythos and represent both people of color as well as those with physical challenges means more to me than I can put into words.
You’ve also no doubt seen the way the industry has changed in terms of telling black stories, particularly speculative ones. What are you appreciating about what’s changed and what’s one thing you hope changes/continues to change?
I suppose one of the most positive examples of a changing landscape in Hollywood is the recent rise of content creators from marginalized communities. Shonda Rhimes, Jordan Peele, Ava DuVernay, and others are experiencing tremendous success in the marketplace and disproving the tired notion that the only valuable stories are those that center white normative culture.
For many people, you are also the face of their reading journey. Reading Rainbow was a catalyzing force and one that you had such a deep investment in. Why is reading so important to you and why is it so important to you to spend your time supporting children in enjoying reading?
I believe that literacy in at least one language is critical to one reaching their most full potential in life! If you can read, you can self-educate, which means no one can enslave your mind. You have the wherewithal to not have to take anybody’s word for it. You can, as the saying goes, pick up a book and… well… you know the rest! So to instill in a child a love of reading and the written word is to set them up for success in life.
Levar Burton Reads™ continues this goal of bringing stories and reading to people. What’s your favorite thing about this new venture in storytelling?
Reading aloud is great fun for me. It is deeply satisfying from a storytelling point of view, because it taps into that ancient aspect of humanity that has always shared stories. Also, the podcast has given me a platform with which I can highlight both speculative fiction and speculative fiction writers that have been marginalized by mainstream publishing. It’s important to me to shine some light on these very talented voices.
One thing that I appreciate is that you aren’t shy about featuring speculative fiction on the show. So often the genre gets pushed aside as “less-than” or “not-literary”, why has it been important to you to feature these stories?
It’s my favorite genre, has been since I was a kid. I read what I like on the podcast and in addition to being a big fan of the short story format I tend to lean into my love of speculative fiction.
A follow on to that last question, what does Speculative Fiction mean to you?
I suppose simply put it means using one’s imagination to invent a literary reality taking place in the past, present or the future. The task of inventing the future is one that belongs to all of us. No singular race or group of people, has lock on imagination, innovation or invention which makes the writing and the reading of Speculative Fiction an act of the decolonization of one’s mind.
The Ember Award is about unsung heroes of the genre, so I want to talk about some of your work that may not get as much attention, namely Smart House. Personally, I really enjoyed this movie and its a film that you directed. Is this a movie you ever think about? What did you enjoy about that work?
I do think about Smart House from time to time. We made that DCOM [Disney Channel Original Movie] in 1999. Today some of the AI depicted in Smart House is fairly commonplace. That’s the thing about Speculative Fiction, it’s a demonstration of the principle, “If you can dream it, it can probably be done!” Just look at some of the real world technology these days that has been inspired by TV and movies.
Can you share any projects you’re working on or one goal that you have for your work in the industry?
I simply want to keep telling stories. Stories that entertain, inspire, enlighten; perhaps a story or two that help point to our purpose on this planet.
Last question: What does it mean to you to be considered for the Ember award?
This nomination is a high honor in my view. Not only is it the first of its kind from a seriously cool periodical I also love the idea: being the ember that fans fire into flame!