Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Holy Shit, Uhura!

The woman in the above photo is Nichelle Nichols, in character as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura on the set of Star Trek. It's easy to forget (which is encouraging to me) how groundbreaking this character was for American fiction, and particularly for network television. She debuted with series opening episode, "The Man Trap," which aired in 1966.

Uhura was Chief Communications Officer aboard the Enterprise. That makes her the fourth link in the chain of command. So,..a black woman, in 1966, held a position of considerable power in a network television show. That's a mere two years after the Civil Rights Act. Deep-seated institutional racism doesn't just taper off that quickly. Uhura wouldn't have existed if Gene Roddenberry hadn't held downright shockingly progressive views for a man of his generation from Texas.
Gene Roddenberry
You wouldn't have known it by his face.

As a matter of fact, Roddenberry's original pilot featured a female First Officer, who was the intensely logical and level-headed presence on the bridge. The female character. In 1965. It goes beyond that, even. He stubbornly refused to allow any reference to organized religion as a going concern on the show. While working on The Next Generation, he told writer/producer Ronald D. Moore that he believed Earth's religions would taper out by the 23rd Century, to be replaced by personal spirituality.

But back to Uhura. At the end of the first season, Nichelle Nichols considered leaving to pursue a career on Broadway. One weekend, she went to a Civil Rights and met a big fan of the show who changed her mind. You may have heard of him, because he was Martin Luther King.

Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his Dream Speech
Yeah. That Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King told Nichols that Star Trek was the only show he and his wife allowed their kids to watch. He begged her not to leave, because he knew how important it was for black people in America, and in particular black women, to have a role model like Uhura. Someone who was not a servant of the heroes, but their peer. "Once that door is opened by someone," he said, "no one else can close it again.

So she stayed on for the duration of the series. It turns out, Dr. King was right on the money. Among those who called Nyota Uhura a major influence were Dr. Sally Ride, the first female astronaut, and Dr. Mae Jamison, the first black woman astronaut. Whoopi Goldberg, who played Guinan in The Next Generation, also looked up to Uhura. When she first saw Star Trek, she ran to her parents and shouted, "I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!"

People make a big deal out of Star Trek, and we like to call those people nerds. But you can't deny the impact. It goes beyond launching a renewed interest in science fiction (and science in general). Star Trek played a crucial role in tearing down racist and sexist taboos, and it did so deliberately. Because Uhura's name? Comes from the Swahili, uhuru. Which means "freedom."

Holy shit.

"Gene roddenberry 1976" by Larry D. Moore. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

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