‘Star Trek’ Nickel Nichols shows America a different future

“She walks in beauty like night. …”

A smiling Spock greets Lieutenant Uhura with a line from Byron at one point in their decades of shared “Star Trek” adventures. Now, this was the way Leonard Nimoy’s Spock would smile at times, but follow me here:

Even the foreigner knew a queen when he saw a queen.

And what is the queen? Those shoes. 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. His contribution to America’s collective imagination – whether on the television screen or in his real life – cannot be underestimated.

Without hair and with scintillating earrings, she was the communications officer, the fourth in command of the Federation starship USS Enterprise in the 23rd century.

She was the embodiment of a declaration that appeared in billboards decades later: There are black people in the future.

When “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in September 1966, Uhura’s appearance struck audiences like a thunderbolt. At the time, black people were in a very literal and ultimately existential battle for the autonomy of their bodies and souls. It was an era of marches, freedom rides and dharnas. Malcolm X was already dead. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was still preaching.

Black people of all abilities and professions were still being pushed into the corners of restaurants, hotels and offices. Black women, if ever mentioned in the big media, were portrayed as either loud, disrespectful troublemakers or sociable, overweight maids and nannies who allegedly took care of white men’s children. Was happy to give

From this madness Uhura appeared.

A vision in red and black. Beautiful, smart as hell and not interested in anyone’s bullshit.

Her name means freedom in Swahili. And for a generation, it symbolized this: the freedom to be seen and appreciated for your talents, rather than being seen as an obligation because of your complexion.

I’m Too Young to Watch “Star Trek” on NBC; I wasn’t born until the 1970s. I got into the franchise when I was in college in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. Philly TV was a Trek haven at the time: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” were in first runs, older episodes of “Next Generation” were already in syndication five nights a week, and The original series was every Saturday afternoon.

At first, I mainly complained about what Uhura didn’t do. She wasn’t one of the Big 3 (Kirk, Spock and McCoy), so she was rarely in the spotlight role. This was true of women in general in the original series, and was not fully corrected as a franchise problem until “Star Trek: Discovery” decades later. (Yes, I know there was a woman aboard the USS Voyager. And I also know that her command was questioned and challenged more than any captain of the time. But did not dare to roll like this. Capt. Katherine Janeway was wrong.)

As I went into the workforce myself, I gained a healthy appreciation for Uhura. I’ve learned that a lot of times, you just have to come prepared and do your bit and not expect to be the person in front or the back pat. Be prepared to take the helm if you have to, but don’t make a big deal about it. Run your business, not your mouth.

And I wondered what Nichols would have experienced over the years, being brought in to be part of this hopeful, exciting vision of the future, yet still fighting for screen time and incorporating the 1960s. . (The discrepancy was not lost on him; as he recalled several times, he planned to leave the series after the end of the first season and return to Broadway until “his biggest fan”—some famous publicist named Martin Luther King—spoke. that out of it.)

Once the show ended, Nichols remained a catalyst for inclusion. In the 1970s, she went on a nationwide tour of universities and professional organizations, encouraging the nation’s top women and people of color, who were scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, to apply for the astronaut program. And he listened.

Charles Bolden, a former Marine Corps major general who flew on four space shuttle missions and became NASA’s administrator for eight years, is credited with giving the idea to implement Nichols’ tour. Mae Jameson, the first African American female astronaut, often cited Nichols as an inspiration.

As a result of her tour, people such as Sally Ride, Judith Resnick, Frederick Gregory and Ronald McNair became astronauts.

(Ms. Nichols, I may well have tried too, because I grew up loving stars and planets and nebulae, even though I couldn’t see much from my apartment in Brooklyn. But when the body was ready, the calculus was weak. I had to cross other roads.)

In a 2011 interview Along with Nichols, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that thanks to their efforts, the Space Shuttle program was the first American astronaut program that better reflected America.

Yes, astronauts are the ones who got tested, trained their bodies, sacrificed and flew among the stars. But everything that flies has air under its wings.

Nichols helped provide that air, first a television show and a concept that evolved into a multimillion-dollar global franchise, and then to the real-life space organization that would, eventually, become that fictional starship Enterprise. Will find out how to build.

From his presence and his encouragement, we know that we were all there in the future. Don’t worry about not being there. Of course you are there. Just be prepared to put it to work when it’s your turn.

He moved what we thought was possible. No artist can give a greater gift than this.

If there’s a life after death, I hope it takes a few minutes for Nimoy to reunite Nichols with poetry again. And this time, they both spend some time smiling.

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