I was still a teenager when the original "Star Trek" made its debut in 1966. It was on NBC, and although I watched some of the episodes, I admit that I wasn't a big fan of the show. To be honest, I much preferred "Star Trek--The Next Generation," which debuted almost twenty years later. But there was something I did like about the original "Star Trek"-- it had what we today would call a multicultural cast. I also liked the fact that the cast members were not all stuck in stereotypical roles. In many TV shows of the 50s and 60s, minority characters were either depicted as not very smart or unable to speak good English. And women were still either secretaries or housewives; and especially in comedies, they were frequently depicted as somewhat scatterbrained.
But "Star Trek" was unique for its time. Yes, the main character was a white male (Captain Kirk), but the crew of the Enterprise included a Vulcan, a Russian, an Asian, a Scot, and a Black woman. And it was the Black woman who was unlike any other characters on TV in the mid-60s. Her character's name was Lieutenant Uhura, and the woman playing her was Nichelle Nichols. She was born Grace Dell Nichols, and most viewers were probably unaware of the fact that she was a talented singer, stage actress, and model. But I'm sure they noticed that on "Star Trek," she was not anyone's servant (one of the few roles given to Black actors and actresses). Nor was her character written in a patronizing way. Rather, Uhura was the ship's communications officer, someone well-versed in science, who was also capable of taking control of the helm when needed.
Perhaps she was not aware how much her presence meant to young Black viewers-- Whoopi Goldberg recalls watching her and being delighted to see a Black character in an important role. And Dr. Martin Luther King was aware of Nichelle Nichols too-- when she wanted to leave the series for a role in a Broadway play, Dr. King personally encouraged her to stay with "Star Trek," because, he said, it was so important for Black kids to learn that they could be anything in life-- even someone on a star ship, or a doctor, a professor, anything. And so, she continued on as Lieutenant Uhura.
Of course, not everyone was happy she was there: America was still in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and some southern affiliates of NBC were uncomfortable with any show that had an interracial cast; one scene from 1968 evoked some controversy, when the plot called for her and Captain Kirk to share a brief kiss. But for the most part, her role was well-received, and greatly appreciated. It even led to her doing some work for NASA, helping to recruit Black and female employees, some of whom became astronauts. She also appeared in other film and TV roles over the next several decades.
Nichelle Nichols died on July 30, 2022, at age 89. Agreed, she wasn't a real science officer nor an astronaut, but her presence in the cast of "Star Trek" did what Dr. King hoped-- it created new possibilities. At the beginning of the original show, it talked about how the voyages of the Enterprise were about seeking out new worlds: to "boldly go where no man has gone before." I prefer the revised version from "The Next Generation"-- to boldly go where no-one has gone before. The way I see it, having a dream, creating a possibility, embarking on your life's latest adventure...this is something anyone can do. For many years, women and people of color were told those dreams and possibilities didn't apply to them. Today, they do, and characters like Lieutenant Uhura paved the way. Rest in peace, Nichelle. And thank you.
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