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All I Want For Christmas Is LeVar Burton

By July Westhale

Illustration: Sophia Foster-Dimino
Celebrate what is holy to you this season — beyond this arbitrary time of calendar endings and beginnings. Celebrate what keeps you going, every day.

T o start — are there any Reading Rainbow fans here tonight?

Very recently, I learned the not-so-startling fact that LeVar Burton once desired to be a man of the cloth.

“I was studying for the priesthood,” he said in a recent interview, “And I found myself drawn to theater.” He’d left the seminary to pursue his dream of acting, and then left his theatre program to appear on Roots. He has clearly always been a man who was chosen, moved to serve what called him.

When I learned this, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. While I left religion in the dust in the Sacramento Valley in 1996, I still believe in holiness. I still believe that there are people and beings on this planet who can achieve greatness, who heal with touch and altruism and vocal arrangement. And even though the only two creatures who currently occupy this high pedal stool are LeVar Burton and my cat, it is no less real.

A little background: I moved around a lot as a kid. I lived the first three years of my life with a mother who loved me deeply, but who was haunted by persistent ghosts, then I lived as a ward of the state of Arizona—then with various families. I landed with my maternal aunt’s family in California in 1992, and I’ve been here since.

My mother, I’ve been told, was a reader (and a Sagittarius, but that’s only sorta relevant). She put headphones on her belly when she was pregnant with me, and sent me waves of books on tape, along with Chopin, Mozart, Mahler.

In the golden light of my short, fragmented memories of her, I remember reading as a sacred, holy act. Before nap-time, after nap-time, during nap-time (if I could stay quiet and not bother her, because nap-time was also her time to read, and holy).

We were poor, and didn’t have many books, yet I remember taping up a large piece of butcher paper and drawing a library in my room; I crayon-ed it into existence. It was largely full of copies and copies of my favorite book: Little Women. (After all, I was a very good baby gay). So, picture it with me if you will: a bold white swath of paper, a crude rectangle of shelves full of smaller rectangles, the bindings of which read Little Women Little Women Little Women.

This was 1988. I was still an only child before I was adopted, so I was still naïve enough to rhapsodize about having siblings.

This is a room full of people who came to a storytelling event, so I’m certain I’m in the right company when I talk passionately about my young and enduring love of the escapism of reading. A love I’m lucky to have, to consume voraciously, and to have been gifted by a woman who left this mortal plane far too soon after she gave it to me.

My adoration of reading was further developed when I was placed in a children’s home outside of Phoenix, Arizona. We had government-approved programming — The Elephant Show (skinamarinkidinkydink, skinamarinkydoo, I love youuu), and, of course, Reading Rainbow.

READING RAINBOW! Even saying the name fills me with this promise infinite knowledge.

I was uniquely positioned to love Reading Rainbow. I’d just been taken from my home. I was in a room of strangers, had regulated visits with my family, multiple caseworkers, and slept in a bunk bed in a line of bunk beds, like garden rows of tulips, or aisles of headstones.

The only familiar landscape for me was one of literary sojourn — the dusty California of The Red Pony, the isolation of Island of the Blue Dolphins, the excellence of childhood in James and the Giant Peach. When the director of foster care turned the dial to Reading Rainbow in the home, all of us — all of us children of circumstance, children of worst moments, children of indeterminate transitional time — sat rapt, LeVar Burton’s kind, paternal, and holy voice uniting us.

I slept in a bunk bed in a line of bunk beds, like garden rows of tulips, or aisles of headstones.

I moved to California shortly thereafter. I moved to another desert, to a family where I suddenly had siblings, and to a household of non-readers. While many components of my adoption were disorienting, to say the least, one of the most confusing was that. There were few books on my adoptive family’s shelves. Reading was a reward, doled out in fifteen-minute increments, easily stolen away. And nap-time was for actual sleeping.

My maternal family has always been devoutly religious. My granddaddy is still a preacher. Until I was a teenager and too much of a pain in the ass to take to church anymore, we ate, breathed, bled, sermon.

Recently, my partner took me to see the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. We went because it’s the holidays, and the holidays are a time of dark on dark on dark. Dark too early, dark too long, and dark. All too oppressive in a world that seems to drain itself of hope a little more each day.

Despite the complicated nature of the holiday season (rampant consumerism, oppressive religious ceremony, Christian-supremacy), the one thing I appreciate about it (especially at this present moment in history) is that it still maintains a bit of hope. How else could we superimpose snowy wonderlands onto Californian suburban lawns, and believe (in the time of #metoo) in the almost deity-like incarnation of Santa, who is a dude like any other dude (and thus subject to patriarchal whims), and to do all of this without question?

Reading was a reward, doled out in fifteen-minute increments, easily stolen away.

But how’s this for a holiday miracle? The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir concert we went to? Was MCed by LeVar Burton. Furthermore, Mr. Burton, to my tearful joy, had us sing the Reading Rainbow theme song.

I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church. I grew up with a SINGIN people. While I’m no longer a religious person, hymns and gospel taught me my first poetry — my first understanding of rhyme and meter, my first look into how verse could pay homage to something larger than myself. Gospel, LeVar Burton boomed from his rightful place in the light, seeks to bring joy to the hearts of those who hear it.

Who dictates what religion is, what holidays are, what’s worth celebrating? Those in power, those who won the wars. But just as I was uniquely positioned to lean on Reading Rainbow in times of duress, we are now uniquely positioned to fight with our words, our songs, our convictions. And, of course, our hope and joy. The world right now is dank and dim — it needs the curiosity and suspension of disbelief that literature and art give. It needs good men, for god’s sake it needs healing masculinity. It needs holiness, in all of its manifestations.

Celebrate what is holy to you this season—beyond this arbitrary time of calendar endings and beginnings. Celebrate what keeps you going, every day.

Hope is a radical act. Like poetry, it forces us to stay present, when we otherwise want to dissociate. Look, like I do, to people who practice care, empathy, and active world-healing, like Mr. Burton, or those at The Establishment.

And for god’s sake, take a look. It’s in a book!

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