Dear LeVar Burton,
Like many children born in 1980 I remember coming home from kindergarten and first grade and watching Mr Rogers, Reading Rainbow and Square One TV. I was excited to get any book that had the stamp of approval "Reading Rainbow Book." I loved watching all of the shows new and old. I still remember the plot from "A Chair for My Mother," and all the words from the song in the Team Work episode. The concepts of "Ty's One Man Band," that everything can be music (not to mention Ben Vereen's song), continues to enhance my daily life. At one point in my childhood (maybe when I was 7) I wanted to be a book refurbisher, an idea I got from the library of congress episode.
I took for granted that every afternoon I could go on a new adventure to find out what happens at fashion week, or on a farm, or all night in New York City. As a teen and I caught a rerun here and there (at one point I wanted to work for PBS [also wouldn't life be better if we all lived by the things we told children to do?]). Watching Reading Rainbow as a teen I started to realize who the readers of the books were. Finding out that Phyillis Diller read "Ludow Laughs" and Hoyt Axton read"Meanwhile Back at the Ranch," I started to appreciate Reading Rainbow on an whole other level.
As a Star Trek fan raised on TNG you were one of my favorite characters. The only collectable TNG characters I had were a small Enterprise NCC-1701-D and Geordi LaForge. My short lived - incomplete TNG fan-fiction was about Geordi LaForge finally getting his love story. (Even as a 14 year old my Trekkie friend and I could tell that this was an injustice. Yes there was that episode or two with the designer of the engines but that really doesn't count.) I was elated with the cross-over episode between TNG and Reading Rainbow. I didn't realize how much I took your place in my life and the things I loved for granted until I was in Peace Corps.
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namibia in a small Ovambo tribe about 20 km from the Angolan boarder. In order to get to my homestead you had to drive about 1.5 hours from the nearest town. After the tarred road turns into a dirt road you travel about 30 more minutes then walk another hour and fifteen minutes into the desert until you get to the village of OshiKuKu and my homestead. Namibia has 3 desserts that converge and the landscape is fairly barren save a few bushes, anthills and the occasional tree. The water was a public tap where community members can collect water in 5,10, and 20L jugs and take it back to their homesteads. There was no electricity to the village though the school was wired for it and did have a telephone.
|The Leaning Tree landmark on my walk from the dirt road to home|
|The folks at the water tap my last night in my village|
As a Peace Corps Volunteer at the Illonga School I taught English and Science to grades 8-10 as well as art classes. I was also raised in a house that fostered a love of reading and books. I was surprised to find out that the school library was stored in the teacher's office and had a very small selection. I was even more shocked when I saw an occasional book weather-worn just laying in the sand. Children treated their books roughly and without the respect and care I was taught. What was sadder to me was the lack of imagination. I would ask my English students to make up a story or write poetry and all of the responses were very concrete. Rarely would I have a student write about something that had not actually happened. If we had just read a story they would mostly repeat what they had heard or understood. This limitation in imagination was more obvious in art class. When I asked them to draw items it was mostly copied from what they saw in front of them be it a magazine, picture, or item in the classroom.
|My school first thing in the morning|
I then started thinking about my influences as a child. Though I lived in Cincinnati, OH I had seen what New York and New Orleans were like, because of your show. I knew about different careers in aerospace as well as farming because of your show. I realized that through Reading Rainbow I had an understanding of vast worlds beyond that which was in front of me. This is an advantage my students did not have. I had book donations to the library and encouraged reading, but I wish I could have shown them your show. Though I come from a family of readers you show made it clear how transportive reading could be.
Moreover I saw all of these things hosted by a Black man. I can not state the significance of this enough.
Every afternoon I had a Black man on my television taking me on new adventures and teaching me We would laugh, learn, and I always knew I would "see him next time." I had a pretty stable childhood with two loving Black American parents; I can't imagine what you meant to those who did not have this. I never wondered if there would be people of color in space because of you (and Mae C. Jemison.) As I grew up, I realized I had a very revisionist history of my childhood TV. I found out: "Benson" was not the governor, "Gimme a Break" was not about a Black woman adopting three White children, and "Sliver Spoons" was not about the friendship of a rich White kid and rich Black kid. However you and your roles stayed true and genuine.
I know you are a human being and I appreciate you letting us see that side of you as well in your interviews and conversations. I remember on one of the PBS promos you mentioned your own children. It was kind of like when you see your teacher at the grocery store and you realize they are a person. When I got back from Peace Corps (and India, and had enough people bug me to do it) you were the first person I followed when I joined twitter. I was so excited to hear that you had a new podcast. When I got to listen to your first podcast it brought tears to my eyes.
Thank You LeVar Burton. Thank You for showing children worlds beyond what they can see in front of them. Thank You for being an example of a Black man that much of America pretends does not exist. Thank You for teaching our past showing our present and the possibility of our future. Thank You for continuing to act, teach, and inspire.
Thank You for being You.
Honestly & Sincerely,
Margarette MD, MPH