Burton, who famously played Kunta Kente in Roots, Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and executive produced the children’s educational program Reading Rainbow responded with an immediate yes when approached about hosting the nationally acclaimed event. Raised in a family of educators, he said the spelling bee represents “the inspirational, aspirational ideal of education.”
“I want to normalize the pursuit of knowledge in this culture. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?” Burton said. “Not just making stuff up and calling it a fact. Achievement through knowledge, scholarship, putting in the work to gain the reward.”
In a statement, Dr. J. Michael Durnil, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, shared his excitement about having Burton as the new host. “The selection of Mr. Burton as host aligns with the mission of the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” Durnil said. “To have such a prominent advocate for children’s literacy involved in this special and unique competition is a perfect match. We have the same goals: to educate tomorrow’s leaders and build reading competency in all young people.”
Burton said he was rooting for Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American winner in the bee’s history earlier this year and that the recent win streak of South Asian spellers should also be celebrated. Until Avant-garde claimed the top prize, an Indian-American champion or co-champion won every year since 2008. “Zaila was a surprise, and a bit of an anomaly,” he said. “I’m big for rooting for the underdog. As an underdog myself, I really identify.”
Although he didn’t get the gig for Jeopardy, hosting the Bee is a more than adequate consolation prize for Burton. "Hosting the Scripps National Spelling Bee will be an honor," he said. "Like a lot of folks, I look forward to the competition every year and am excited to be a part of this wonderful tradition that celebrates excellence."