“She walks as beautiful as the night. …”
A smiling Spock greets Lt. Uhura with a replica of Byron at some point in their decades of shared “Star Trek” adventures. Now, that was a very long time ago, when Leonard Nimoy’s Spock smiled occasionally, but come with me here:
Even the alien recognized a queen when he saw one.
And what a queen. These boots. This dress. This eye makeup. That glorious voice.
Nichelle Nichols, the woman who brought Uhura to life, died last week aged 89. His contribution to the collective imagination of America — whether on the television screen or in his real life — cannot be overstated.
With not a hair out of place and fabulous dangling earrings, she was a communications officer, fourth in command of the Federation starship USS Enterprise in the 23rd century.
She was the embodiment of a statement splashed across billboards decades later: There are black people in the future.
When “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in September 1966, Uhura’s very presence struck audiences like a thunderbolt. At the time, black people were in a very literal and ultimately existential struggle for autonomy in body and soul. It was a time of marches, freedom rides and sit-ins. Malcolm X was already dead. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still preaching.
Blacks of all abilities and professions were still relegated to the corners of restaurants, hotels and offices. Black women, if ever mentioned in the mainstream media, were portrayed either as loud, unworthy troublemakers or funky, overweight maids and nannies who were supposed to love white people’s children.
From this madness, Uhura appeared.
A vision in red and black. Beautiful, smart as hell, and not interested in anyone’s nonsense.
Its name means freedom in Swahili. And for a generation, she symbolized that: the freedom to be seen and appreciated for her talents, rather than being seen as a liability because of her color.
I’m too young to have seen “Star Trek” on NBC; I wasn’t born until the 1970s. I came to the franchise when I was in college in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. Philly TV was Trek heaven back then: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” were in first run, older episodes of “Next Generation” were already in syndication five nights a week, and the original series aired every Saturday afternoon.
At first, I mostly complained about what Uhura wasn’t doing. She wasn’t one of the Big 3 (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy), so she was rarely in a starring role. This was true for women in general in the original series, of course, and it wasn’t fully resolved as a franchise issue until “Star Trek: Discovery” decades later. (Yes, I know the USS Voyager had a woman at the helm. And I also know that her command was questioned and challenged far more often than any captain at the time. No one dared rolling over Jean-Luc Picard like that. Capt. Kathryn Janeway got it wrong.)
By entering the job market myself, I gained a healthier appreciation for Uhura. I’ve learned that often it’s just about showing up prepared and doing your job and not expecting to be the one in front or the one being patted on the back. Be prepared to take the helm if you have to, but don’t make a fuss about it. Run your business, not your mouth.
And I thought about what Nichols has had to go through over the years, being celebrated to be part of this promising and exciting vision of the future while having to fight for screen time and inclusion in this present. 1960s. (The gap was not lost on her; as she repeatedly recalled, she planned to leave the show after the end of the first season and return to Broadway until “her biggest fan” – a renowned preacher named Martin Luther King – talks her out of it.)
After the show ended, Nichols continued to be a catalyst for inclusion. In the 1970s, she toured universities and professional organizations nationwide, encouraging the nation’s best women and people of color who were scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to apply for the astronaut program. And they listened.
Charles Bolden, a former Marine Corps major general who served on four space shuttle missions and served as NASA’s administrator for eight years, credited Nichols’ tour with giving him the idea to apply. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, often cited Nichols as an inspiration.
As a result of his tour, people like Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Frederick Gregory and Ronald McNair all became astronauts.
(I may have tried too, Mrs. Nichols, because I grew up loving stars, planets, and nebulae, even though I couldn’t see much from my apartment in Brooklyn. But while the body was ready, the calculation was weak. I had to cross other roads.)
In a 2011 interview with Nichols, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that through his efforts, the space shuttle program was the first US astronaut program to better reflect America.
Yes, these are the astronauts who passed the tests, trained their bodies, made the sacrifices and flew among the stars. But everything that flies has wind under its wings.
Nichols helped provide that wind, first to a TV show and a concept that became a multi-million dollar global franchise, then to the actual space organization that may eventually figure out how to build this business fictional Starship.
His presence and encouragement let us know that we were all here in the future. Don’t worry about not being there. Of course you are there. Just be ready to work it when it’s your turn.
She changed what we, as a people, thought was possible. There is no greater gift an artist can give.
If there is an afterlife, I hope Nimoy takes a few minutes to regale Nichols with poetry again. And that this time they both spend time smiling.
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