On September 8th 1966, the first episode of the iconic science-fiction series Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry, was released. It ran for just three years but left a legacy that would reach beyond the small screen. Star Trek itself presented viewers with a unique utopian vision that focused on exploration of both space and the humanity within ourselves. One character who had a profound effect on American culture is Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, who quietly broke the mold of how women were usually subserviently depicted on television and became a role model of strength and authority for women and especially, women of color.
In the early days of both film and television, an African American woman in an essential role was something that did not exist. While the occasional Black male actor, like Sidney Poitier, might get an authoritative position in a 1960s film, the country was riddled with hate and discrimination towards African Americans. Networks were not placing diverse faces on screen and certainly not in positions of power. Creator Gene Roddenberry, wanted to show a vision for the future that surpassed the hate of racial discrimination and gender discrimination in a society that had evolved, and by showing it, he hoped viewers would aspire to such a reality.
When Nichols took the role of Uhura, she found it overwhelming and struggled due to the fact her character was always minimized in favor of the three lead white male actors. Nichols came close to permanently leaving the series until a meeting with Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr. According to Nichols, in an NPR interview given in 2011, King told her that, “For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen,” and that, “this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch.” That is when Nichols then understood the power her image had on society and continued with the series and her pioneering performance, including the first interracial kiss seen coast to coast. By the 1970s Star Trek may have ended its exploration of going where no one had been before, though for Nichelle Nichols, it was still just beginning.
Nichols went on to join the board of directors at the National Space Institute when she noticed the lack of diversity in the room. She asked the leadership “Where are my people?” According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, “After Apollo 11, Nichelle made it her mission to inspire women and people of color to join this agency, change the face of STEM and explore the cosmos. Nichelle’s mission is NASA’s mission. Today, as we work to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under Artemis, NASA is guided by the legacy of Nichelle Nichols.” Nichols may have played a character pretending to be in space, but now she was actually putting others into space who looked more and more like herself. Through the 1970s the project went on to become a monumental success, which saw the rise of many other women of great importance in the space agency, such as Dr. Judith Resnik, who was sadly killed during the Space Shuttle Challenger Mission. Other equally-prominent female astronauts include Lori Garver and Dr. Sally Ride, among countless others. In 2015, Nichols herself would be invited to fly aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy on an eight-hour high altitude mission via Boeing 747SP.
Nichelle Nichols impact was truly larger than life; Nichols played a pivotal role for the reinforcement of representation of women, not just for the screen and stage, but in the real world. She showed that women are equal to men and that they too can reach for the stars – and not just white women but women of color. As a Trekkie myself, I have seen every iteration of Star Trek that presently exists and I can say with full confidence, the further along the series goes the more progressive the show becomes.
For example, because of Uhura, Star Trek: The Next Generation saw several female actresses in positions of authority, from the ship’s doctor to the ship’s counselor. In the following series, Deep Space Nine, we find not just a female on the bridge, but we see the first Captain of color, Avery Brooks. Through a seven-season run, and a show that often confronted racism and politics in its storylines, Captain Benjamin Sisko is a role model for African Americans and the world to see. But for Lt. Uhura, there would be no Captain Sisko. In 1995, came the series entitled Voyager which depicted the franchise’s first female captain. Captain Kathryn Janeway commands with authority and compassion, breaking away from previous patriarchal tropes that you must be tough only to take command. Most recently, in Star Trek: Discovery, we have a non-binary, African-American Captain leading a crew nine hundred years into the future. Young women, young people of color and other minorities can see themselves on screen and dream of what they can become as well.