This past Monday, I had the privilege of attending a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration which honored several students for their achievements in promoting diversity and inclusion. The guest speaker was none other than LeVar Burton, most known for his portrayal of Kunta Kente in the drama series Roots, his role as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and producer and host of the popular PBS children’s show, Reading Rainbow. I was, quite honestly, fan-girling the entire duration of his speech. In truth, I knew very little of the extensive work Burton had done in various other TV series, movies, guest appearances, and his philanthropy work with the AIDS Research Alliance before that day, though that, and his eloquent speech upon the importance of diversity and culling of racial injustice, certainly made him all the more admirable. What pulled me out of my apartment to traverse across the frigid campus was the chance that I might hear him say, “Take a look. It’s in a book.” And friends, I was not disappointed.
What I realized about three quarters of the way through Burton’s speech was that I had simply come out to this event because I wanted to satisfy my internal child’s fanaticism. I hadn’t watched or thought about Reading Rainbow in years, yet when I heard that Burton would be visiting OU, the nostalgia of tuning in every weekday to watch him came rushing back, leaving me eager to relive that joy. As far back as I can remember existing, I have always loved books and the magic that they bring. Sitting in a crowd of people, that all encompassing flood of understanding hit me like a wave; he was the reason I fell in love with literature.
In reality, one man could not possibly have set me on the path of the proud book nerd, but I cannot help but acknowledge that LeVar Burton helped steer me in the right direction. My childhood was full of TV shows much like Reading Rainbow; Between the Lions, Sesame Street, and Clifford the Big Red Dog were among my favorites that promoted literacy and taught the building blocks of reading. In shows where the focus wasn’t explicitly on reading, they still made many mentions of getting kids access to library cards, reading for pleasure, and how a book was your ticket to exploring the world. Growing up in a house with parents who were both teachers led me to an emersion into all things educational, and reading became an activity no different than playing with my dolls. My world was filled with tons of positive support for reading and literacy.
I count myself lucky to have been raised in an environment like that, but it reminds me of the privilege I hold, having grown up in a middle class family in America, to have access to the education, resources, and support that has allowed me to now be pursuing my BA in English. What saddens me is that not all children have access to such things depending on their social class, economic standing, national education providence, and a host of other variables. From where I’m sitting, knowing how books can open our minds to ideas we could never conceive alone, comfort us at our most depressed, and literally save lives, I hope for a world where literacy is made available to everyone, no matter the class, race, gender, or religion; and most especially the children. It’s during those early stages of life when we absorb the most and lay the foundation for our full potential. I have no doubt in my mind that without a concerned mother and father bringing books home for me to read, or a writing club at my middle school, or a Reading Rainbow for me to sit down and watch with wonder, I wouldn’t be a writer today.
Literacy matters. Not just because it’s a technical skill that allows people to obtain information at their own will, and make informed choices with that information, or even that books are mystical pieces of treasure that should be available to everyone, but because words are the tools of the inspirational. There’s potential nested away in the minds of millions who don’t have the privilege to hone their talents simply because of lack of exposure to the written word. We leave their thoughts hibernating for decades because we allow them to be denied their rights to literacy. This is a social injustice that must be alleviated if we are to ever acquire a society in which everyone truly has a voice and a medium in which to make themselves heard.
As a lover of literature, I hope to one day be able to do as much work as LeVar Burton to advocate for the rights of literacy. The written word, by far, is the most powerful tool at our disposal, because of the traces of innovation, curiosity, and adventure it leaves in its readers. It’s what creates the platform for all of us to learn about all the world offers, in terms of career, hobbies, culture, lifestyle, passion and so much more. Books create people who are not only knowledgeable, but also more accepting, empathic, and creative in the ways they endeavor to do whatever it is they love. For every Mary Shelley, William Shakespeare, Toni Morison, J.K. Rowling, or young new writer, we have yet another pebble tipping our scales in the direction of limitless exploration. I leave you with a quote from LeVar Burton, that I hope leaves you as giddy as it left me:
“Literacy is freedom, as far as I can see.”