SALT LAKE CITY — LeVar Burton's RootsTech message trumpeted the importance of discovering family roots and the power of storytelling and imagination — and included just a few Star Trek references.
"Are there any Star Trek fans in the house?" the actor asked at one point, sparking applause. "My people."
Burton, who dressed in a light tan suit for the event, is primarily known for three roles in his career: acting as Kunta Kinte in the 1977 landmark television miniseries "Roots," being the face of "Reading Rainbow" and portraying Geordi La Forge on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
Burton was one of four speakers during Friday morning's keynote session, the opening event on African Heritage Day at RootsTech, a family history and technology conference, at the Salt Palace. He was joined by Kenyatta Berry, an entrepreneur and host of "Genealogy Roadshow"; Sherri Camp, national president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and genealogist and author Melvin Collier.
Burton, soon to be 60 years old, spoke of his 4-foot 10-inches, 115-pound mother, Irma Jean Christian, who helped him discover a love of reading and storytelling and the value of education. A single parent of three, she worked multiple jobs to help him gain a college education and chase his dreams in spite of facing racial injustice, Burton said.
"She was determined that I would reach my full potential, even if she had to kill me. Course I'm kidding, sort of," Burton said. "I am the man I am because of my mother."
Along with his mother, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, "Roots" author Alex Haley and Fred Rogers, more commonly recognized as Mr. Rogers from "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," served as key mentors who helped to shape Burton's life.
Roddenberry gave Burton hope as an actor by casting Nichelle Nichols, a black woman, as Lt. Uhura on the original "Star Trek" television series.
Burton called Roddenberry a "visionary" who helped him discover the power of imagination. Because of Roddenberry, Burton came to love science fiction and the magic of two words: "What if?"
Burton pointed out that several of the devices used on the original "Star Trek," such as communicators and earpieces, led to inventions like flip cellphones and Bluetooth connections.
"What? You don't think Steve Jobs was a Star Trek fan?" Burton said. "I am convinced that Apple owes me money. One day in our lifetime we will get the holodeck and for the blind, Geordi's visor."
Another mentor for Burton was Haley, the American author who sparked a genealogical explosion with the miniseries "Roots." One family's story changed America, Burton said.
"There was an America before 'Roots' and an America after 'Roots' and they were not the same, y'all," said Burton, who played a five-minute clip in which his character, Kunta Kinte, was whipped until he said his newly given name, Toby.
"'Roots' is a powerful example of the idea that we truly stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us," Burton said.
Burton concluded by recounting an event he attended with Rogers at the White House during the Bill Clinton administration. In a room full of television and network CEOs, Rogers asked everyone to close their eyes and picture the person in their lives who "recognized their brilliance" and helped them on the road to fulfilling their potential, Burton said.
"We all have and need assistance on this journey," Burton said. "In my 60 years of experience, I have never encountered a solution to being human that makes more sense to me than 'standing in love.' And pay attention, because if we are not paying attention, we might miss something that is key to our delivering our gift to the world."
After his remarks, Burton became visibly emotional as he was presented with a book of his family history by FamilySearch marketing manager Thom Reed.
Berry, Camp and Collier each spoke for a few minutes after Burton.
Berry talked about the origin of her name and patterns in African culture. Berry's name "Kenyatta" means musician and is shared by the first president of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta.
"My mother named me after Jomo because it is a powerful name," Berry said. "Her goal was to raise a child that wouldn't be a burden on society and live up to the power of her name, so no pressure."
Camp discussed her connection to her African heritage through food.2 comments on this story
"Traditions like Sunday dinner and Saturday night picking greens helped me to know that a part of my ancestors is still alive in me," Camp said. "The traditions that we have that are unique to our families help keep our ancestors alive and help us to trace back to find them."
Collier shared about some of his experiences digging into his African roots. He has ancestors that fought in the Civil War. A DNA test revealed Collier is 92 percent African, and he was thrilled to later meet living relatives in Africa.
"It was a dream come true," Collier said of the experience.
RootsTech continues through Saturday and several sessions are being streamed online at RootsTech.org. Saturday's Family Discovery Day, for members of the LDS Church, will be streamed on DeseretNews.com.