“She walks in beauty like the night….”
A smiling Spock welcomes Lieutenant Aura with a class of Byron at one point during their decades of shared “Star Trek” adventures. Now, that was way back in time when Spock Leonard Nimoy sometimes smiled, but walk me here:
Even the alien knew a queen when he saw one.
And what a queen. those shoes. This dress. This eye makeup. That glorious voice.
Nichelle Nichols, the woman who brought Uhura back to life, passed away last week at the age of 89. Her contribution to the collective imagination of America – both on television and in her real life – cannot be overstated.
With no hair out of place and gorgeous dangling earrings, she was the communications officer, and the fourth in command of the 23rd-century Union ship USS Enterprise.
It was the embodiment of an advertisement sprinkled across billboards decades later: There are black people in the future.
When “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in September 1966, Uhura’s presence struck the audience like a thunderbolt. At the time, blacks were in a real, ultimately, existential struggle for the autonomy of their bodies and souls. It was the era of marches, freedom rides, and sit-ins. Malcolm X was already dead. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was still preaching.
Blacks of all abilities and professions still descended on the corners of restaurants, hotels, and offices. Black women, if ever mentioned in the big media, were portrayed as either boisterous and rude hooligans or pleasant, overweight maids and nannies, presumably delighted to tweet about white children.
And out of this madness appeared Ohori.
Red and black vision. Beautiful, smart as hell and doesn’t care about anyone’s bullshit.
Its name means freedom in Swahili. And for a generation, it has symbolized: the freedom to be seen and valued for your talents, rather than being seen as a hindrance because of your color.
I’m too young to watch “Star Trek” on NBC. I wasn’t born until the seventies. I got my franchise while I was in college in Philadelphia in the early ’90s. Philly TV was Trek’s haven at the time: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” premiered, older episodes of “The Next Generation” were already available five nights a week, and the original series was Saturday afternoon.
At first, I mainly complained about what Aura didn’t do. She wasn’t one of the Big Three (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy), so she rarely played in the spotlight. This was true of women in general in the original series, of course, and that wasn’t fully fixed as a franchise problem until “Star Trek: Discovery,” decades later. (Yes, I know that the USS Voyager had a woman on its head. I also know that its leadership was much more questioned and challenged than any commander at the time. No one dared to turn around Jean-Luc Picard like that. Captain. Catherine Janeway miscalculated .)
When I started working on my own, I gained a healthy appreciation for Uhura. I’ve learned that often, you just have to show up and do your job and not expect to be the one to pat him on the back. Be prepared to take the lead if you have to, but don’t make it too big of a deal about it. Manage your business, not your mouth.
And I thought about what Nichols must have experienced over the years, being celebrated for being part of such a hopeful and exciting vision of the future and yet still having to fight for screen time and inclusion in the present of the ’60s. (The ambivalence was not lost on her; as she remembers several times, she planned to leave the series after the end of season one and return to Broadway so her “biggest fan”—a celebrity preacher named Martin Luther King—talked her out of it.)
Once the show ended, Nichols continued his role as a supporting agent for the inclusion. In the 1970s, she went on a nationwide tour of universities and professional organizations, encouraging women and people of color in the country—scientists, engineers, and mathematicians—to apply for the astronaut program. And they listened.
Charles Bolden, the former Marine Corps major who flew four space shuttle missions and became NASA administrator for eight years, credited Nichols’ tour with giving him the idea of applying. Mae Jemison, 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.
(Maybe I tried well, too, Mrs. Nichols, for I grew up loving the stars, planets, and nebulae, though I couldn’t see much from my Brooklyn apartment. But while the body was ready, the calculus was poor. I had to cross other ways.)
In a 2011 interview with Nichols, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that thanks to her efforts, the space shuttle program was the first American astronaut program to better reflect America.
Yes, the astronauts are the ones who conducted the tests, trained their bodies, made sacrifices, and flew among the stars. But everything that flies by the wind under his wings.
Nichols helped provide those winds, first in a TV show and concept that grew into a multimillion-dollar global franchise, then into a real-life space organization that might, eventually, figure out how to build the fictional Starship project.
Her presence and encouragement makes us know we are all there in the future. Don’t worry about not being there. Of course you are there. Just be ready to act when it’s your turn.
It changed what we thought was possible. There is no greater gift a performer can give.
If there is another life, I hope Nimoy takes a few minutes to greet Nichols with hair again. And this time, they both spend some time smiling broadly.