“Those are my people”: LeVar Burton and African Heritage Day at RootsTech 2017
Sitting in the Salt Palace this morning during the keynote address, I shared an incredible moment with thousands of people. Having just listened to LeVar Burton’s masterful words on the importance of storytelling and family, we watched as Thom Reed from FamilySearch presented LeVar with his family history. He cried and we cried when he looked at the marriage document of his grandparents and said, “those are my people.”
Thom showed him his grandfather’s signature on the document and LeVar was speechless as he saw the actual handwriting of Willis Ward.
LeVar spoke of the strength of his mother, Erma Jean. He joked that he is almost 60 years old and still afraid of her, eliciting a chuckle from the audience. Erma Jean was his first introduction to the magic of storytelling. LeVar could have been a latchkey kid with a working single mother, but he said her example of constantly reading and seeking an education made him the man he is.
Erma Jean taught LeVar that there are no limits to what you can achieve and that education is the ultimate leveler of the playing field. She didn’t sugarcoat the challenges of being a black male in America, stressing that the journey might be difficult but he could persevere and triumph over any adversity. He knew the world would sometimes be hostile because of the color of his skin. The tool to competing with his “melanin challenged” classmates was education.
LeVar was destined to revolve his life around storytelling. Besides his mother, LeVar told of other mentors in storytelling. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was “a true visionary” according to LeVar. Television when LeVar was growing up didn’t reflect people of color. He said that black people called each other up when another black person was on TV. For LeVar, Star Trek was huge; he saw that there could be a place for him in TV when he grew up. According to Wikipedia, “Nichelle Nichols’ Star Trek character, one of the first African American female characters on American television not portrayed as a servant,was groundbreaking in U.S. society at the time.”
He said that a child needs a healthy reflection in popular society. Imaginative power is our superpower as human beings. Our imagination enables us to imagine any invention that has propelled us forward in our human journey. Children watching Star Trek grew up and invented. LeVar mentioned a few inventions such as flip phones, ipads, and bluetooth devices – all that were featured on Star Trek originally. He teased with the idea that one day we’ll get to the holodeck. He said, “therein lies our superpower.” That on which we focus our imagination is what we create in this realm. Our imaginations connect us to our birthright as storytellers. “We are part of an ancient storytelling continuum.”
LeVar related that it is our stories that have always provided us the context of who we are, where we are going, and what will be our contribution in achieving our uniquely human situation. Some stories affect a whole generation. In January 1977, a family story told through his ancestors shifted the nation’s focus on slavery. LeVar related that another storyteller, Alex Haley, gave us the truth of slavery through Roots. There was an America before Roots and an America after Roots. Before, slavery was a “necessary” part of the southern economy. After Roots, Americans realized the irreparable damage that was systematically inflicted on an entire race of people. All of this was accomplished with one family’s story.
LeVar asked us to remember what it felt like to be connected, watching Roots. “All of us members of the same human race, engaged and enraptured by the tale of Kunte Kinte, Kizzy, Chicken George, all brilliantly brought to life in our living rooms.” Roots is a powerful example of the idea that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
Going along with the African Heritage theme, I attended a RootsTech class titled “The Testimonies of Former Slaves in the Southern Claims Commissions.” Professional genealogist and blog talk radio host, Bernice Bennett, taught us to study the records to understand the community, even if our ancestors were not named in the record. Class members included those of African ancestry as well as those of European ancestry. Bernice opened up some time for questions and one class member began a frank discussion. She mentioned that she was disturbed to discover that her ancestors were slave owners and wondered what she could do. Bernice suggested that when we find enslaved individuals in our research to blog about them, get their stories and names into the world of the internet where their descendants can find them.
I also had the opportunity to talk with Kenyatta Berry, a talented African American genealogist, often seen on Genealogy Roadshow. I broached the same question with her: “what should I do if I find out my ancestor owned slaves?”
Kenyatta would like to see a website devoted to records of enslaved individuals, uploaded and indexed. Her advice to me was to not feel guilty. She looks upon slavery as a piece of her family history, but it does not speak to who she is. She gains strength from knowing that her slave ancestors overcame their hardships. She suggested that we move forward and try to help descendants of slaves find their families. We can trace the descendants of the enslaved individuals that our ancestor’s owned and help them connect with a piece of their family history. She spoke to the importance of just knowing where you come from.
When I first heard that Friday was African Heritage Day, I had no idea it would be so emotional yet invigorating. Listening to LeVar Burton’s incredibly moving keynote address and meeting Bernice Bennett and Kenyatta Berry gave me new perspectives. I am grateful for all those who are not afraid to address the difficult issue of slavery and who are doing so much to help people of all races come together.