Nichelle Nichols from ‘Star Trek’ showed America a different future

“She walks in beauty as the night. …”

A grinning Spock greets Lieutenant Uhura with a line of Byron at one point in their decades of shared “Star Trek” adventures. This was a long time ago when Leonard Nimoy’s Spock grinned every now and then, but walk with me here:

Even the alien knew a queen when he saw 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 collective imagination of America – both on the television screen and in her real life – cannot be overstated.

With no hair out of place and fabulous earrings dangling, she was a communications officer, fourth in command of the Federation starship USS Enterprise in the 23rd century.

She was the epitome of a statement spread across billboards decades later: There Are Black People in the Future.

When “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in September 1966, Uhura’s presence struck audiences like a bolt of thunder. At the time, black people were in a very literal and ultimately existential struggle for body and soul autonomy. It was the age of marches, freedom rides and sit-ins. Malcolm X was already dead. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still preached.

Black people of all levels and professions were still relegated to the corners of restaurants, hotels and offices. Black women, if ever mentioned in the larger media, were portrayed as either rowdy, undignified troublemakers or genius, overweight maids and nannies who were supposedly fond of white people’s children.

Out of this madness Uhura appeared.

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

Her name means freedom in Swahili. And for a generation she symbolized that: the freedom to be seen and appreciated for your talents, instead of being seen as an obligation because of your color.

I’m too young to have seen “Star Trek” on NBC; I was only born in the 70’s. I came to the franchise when I was in college in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. Philly TV was a draw at the time: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” were in the first series, the older episodes of “Next Generation” were already in syndication five nights a week, and the original series was every Saturday afternoon.

At first, I mostly 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. This was, of course, true of women in general in the original series, and that was not resolved as a franchise issue in “Star Trek: Discovery” until 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. No one dared attack Jean-Luc Picard like that. Capt. Kathryn Janeway was done wrong.)

When I went to work myself, I developed a healthier appreciation for Uhura. I’ve learned that often you just have to come prepared and do your job and don’t expect to be the one in the front or the one being patted on the back. Be willing to take the helm if you have to, but don’t make a big deal out of it. Run your business, not your mouth.

And I thought about what Nichols must have been through over the years, being honored for being a part of this hopeful, exciting vision of the future and yet having to fight for screen time and inclusion in the present of the 1960s. (The discrepancy had not escaped her notice; as she often recalled, she planned to leave the series after the end of the first season and return to Broadway until “her biggest fan” – a preacher of a household name named Martin Luther King – pronounced her out.)

When the show ended, Nichols continued to be a catalyst for recording. In the 1970s, she went on a nationwide tour of universities and professional organizations, encouraging the nation’s top women and people of color, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, to apply to the astronaut program. And they listened.

Charles Bolden, a former Marine Corps Major General who flew on four space shuttle missions and served as NASA’s administrator for eight years, Nichols’ tour gave him the idea to apply. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, often cited Nichols as a source of inspiration.

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

(Maybe I gave it a good try too, Mrs. Nichols, growing up with a love for stars, planets and nebulae, even though I couldn’t see much from my Brooklyn apartment. But while the body was ready, the calculus was weak. I had to cross other roads.)

In a 2011 interview with Nichols, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said her efforts made the space shuttle program the first American astronaut program to better reflect America.

Yes, the astronauts are the ones who did 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 for a television show and concept that grew into a multimillion-dollar global franchise, then for the real-life space agency that may eventually figure out how to build that fictional Starship Enterprise.

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

She shifted what we as humans thought possible. An artist cannot give a greater gift.

If there is an afterlife, I hope Nimoy takes a few minutes to indulge Nichols with poetry again. And that this time they both spend some grinning.

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