When a lot of folks my age think of Star Trek’s early years, I’m guessing they’re maybe thinking of Captain James T. Kirk, or ‘Beam Me Up’ Scotty. Or the most famous pointed ears of all time, Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. Then again, maybe it’s the Starship Enterprise, which had to be one of the coolest-looking space ships ever imagined.
All of those characters (and in many ways I do consider the Enterprise to be a character) are more than reason enough to reflect on Star Trek with broad smiles and fond memories, but I have to confess that there was another somewhat more carnal reason why I watched Star Trek as a kid. I watched Star Trek to see Nichelle Nichols’ fine brown legs. I’m sorry, but truth is truth. And that woman’s entire dark chocolate body, combined with my already overactive juvenile imagination, took me places that even science fiction couldn’t dream up. Those of us old enough to remember can remember the days when just seeing any black person on the television was reason to jump for joy, and I still remember all the times I would yell to my mother in the kitchen that a black person was on TV and she would drop whatever she was doing to rush in and see who it might be.
A lot of times, most of the time, that character probably didn’t have a role worth remembering. And when it came to black women, it was almost like the networks were scared to death of what might happen if they dared to put an attractive black female on the screen. Like those poor widdle cathode ray tubes might start smoking or something. So then, when Lieutenant Uhura showed up in that short red dress and those black boots…?
As a friend of mine likes to say, ‘buddy, buddy’…
Now that I’m older, I’d love to say that I’ve grown more mature and no longer break into a sweat over the memory of those legs, but that would be a lie. But what I also think about when I think about Nichols these days is how important it was for her to be playing that role at that time in history. Just by being so beautiful, so black, and so dignified, she changed perceptions of who black people were, and who we could become. She was respected as a member of the Star Ship crew just like all the rest, and at the time that was revolutionary. Lt. Uhura wasn’t the Starship maid or cook, and she damned sure wasn’t the Starship mammy. She was a lieutenant on a spaceship. On a spaceship.
Most of us had no idea at the time that she was considering leaving the show, nor did we know how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself (a Trekkie!) encouraged Nichols to please remain because her image alone was doing so much for civil rights. Probably more than she herself even knew. From her interview on NPR:
Ms. NICHOLS: I went in to tell Gene Roddenberry that I was leaving after the first season, and he was very upset about it. And he said, take the weekend and think about what I am trying to achieve here in this show. You’re an integral part and very important to it. And so I said, yes, I would. And that – on Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there’s someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan.
And I’m thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.
But that’s not all. As if to confirm what King had explained and emphasized to her all those years ago about why she simply could not leave the show because of how important she was, it was America’s first African American astronaut Mae Jemison who received her inspiration to become an astronaut from watching Nichols’ portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura on those early Star Trek episodes.
Space. The final frontier…
Find more of his writing at Keith A Owens’ blog
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