‘Star Trek’ Nichelle Nichols confirmed America a unique future

“She walks in beauty like the night. …”

A grinning Spock greets Lieutenant Uhura with a line from Byron at a point in their decades in their shared “Star Trek” adventure. Now, here’s how, back when Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was grinning from time to time, but walk with me here:

Even an alien knows a queen when he sees one.

And what a queen. Those boots. That dress. That eye makeup. That glorious voice.

Nichelle Nichols, the woman who brought Uhura to life, died last week at the age of 89. Her contribution to the general American imagination – whether on screen or in real life – cannot be overstated.

Without her messy hair and dangling earrings, she was a Communications Officer, the fourth in command of the 23rd-century Confederate aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.

She embodies a manifesto that would pervade billboards decades later: There are black people in the future.

When “Star Trek” premiered on NBC in September 1966, Uhura’s presence struck a chord with audiences. At the time, the Negro was in a literal and ultimate existential war for autonomy over their bodies and souls. It was an age of marches, free-riders, and indoor sit-ins. Malcolm X is dead. Pastor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still lecturing.

Blacks of all abilities and occupations are still relegated to the nooks and crannies of restaurants, hotels, and offices. Black women, if ever mentioned in the larger media, are portrayed as noisy, unidentified troublemakers or obese, overweight maids and nannies who is said to take great pleasure in hitting white people’s children.

In this madness, Uhura appeared.

A red and black vision. Beautiful, smart and doesn’t care about anyone’s nonsense.

Her name means freedom in Swahili. And for a generation, she has symbolized that: the freedom to be recognized and appreciated for your talents, rather than being held accountable for the color of your skin.

I was too young to watch “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 a Trek’s paradise at the time: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” premiered, older episodes of “Next Generation” were released five nights a week, and the original series was every Saturday afternoon. .

At first, I mainly complained about what Uhura didn’t do. She is not one of the 3 adults (Kirk, Spock and McCoy), so she rarely gets to play the lead role. Of course, this was true of women in general in the original series, and that wasn’t thoroughly remedied as a franchise issue until “Star Trek: Discovery,” decades later. (Yes, I knew the USS Voyager had a woman at the helm. And I also knew that her command was more frequently questioned and challenged than any captain of the time. No one dared to mess with that. So is Jean-Luc Picard. Captain. Kathryn Janeway did it wrong.)

When I entered the workforce on my own, I gained a greater appreciation for Uhura. I’ve learned that sometimes, you just have to get ready and do your job and don’t expect to be the frontrunner or the pat on the back. Be prepared to take power if you have to, but don’t take it too seriously. Run your business, not your mouth.

And I think about what Nichols had to go through over the years, supposed to be part of this hopeful, exciting future vision but still struggling to get screen time and bring in the present years. that 1960. (The distinction hasn’t gone away for her; as she recalls many times, she plans to leave the series after the end of the first season and return to Broadway until “her biggest fan.” her”—a famous preacher named Martin Luther King—talked her out of it.)

After the program ended, Nichols continued to be the catalyst for inclusion. In the 1970s, she toured colleges and career organizations across the country, encouraging the country’s top women and people of color as scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to sign up. join the astronaut program. And they listened.

Charles Bolden, a former Marine Major General who flew four space shuttle missions and became a NASA administrator for eight years, credits Nichols’ trip for giving him the idea to apply. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, often used Nichols for inspiration.

As a result of her travels, the likes of Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Frederick Gregory and Ronald McNair all became astronauts.

(I might as well have tried, Miss Nichols, growing up I loved stars, planets and nebulae, even though I couldn’t see much from my apartment in Brooklyn. But while the body was ready. , the calculation is still weak. I had to cross other paths.)

In a 2011 interview Along with Nichols, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson says that thanks to her efforts, the space shuttle program is the first American spaceflight program that better reflects America.

That’s right, the astronauts are the ones who have taken the tests, trained their bodies, made sacrifices, and flew among the stars. But everything that flies has wind beneath its wings.

Nichols helped provide that breath, first for a TV show and a concept that has grown into a multi-million dollar global brand, and then to organize the real-life space that can be figure out how to build that fictional Starship Enterprise.

Her presence and her encouragement let us know that we are all there in the future. Don’t worry about not being there. Of course you are there. Just be ready to work when it’s your turn.

She changed what we as people thought was possible. There is no greater gift than a performer can bestow.

If there is an afterlife, I hope that Nimoy will take a few minutes to retell Nichols in poetry. And this time, they both took the time to grin.

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