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Farewell to Nichelle Nichols

There has been a sea change in the cultural perceptions of black women the last 80 years. The default impression went from this...

To this...

Whoopi Goldberg told the story of being a kid watching Star Trek, yelling to her mother, “Come quick, come quick! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!”

This is, of course, a very large and complicated subject, and not one I’m qualified to discuss.

But when Kamala Harris was inaugurated, as I was watching on TV, my twin girls, then six, came up to ask, “So the Vice President is a girl?”

Representation matters. It affects millions of lives.

And if there’s a single persona that threw out the old image of a black woman, and introduced the new one...

That is a lot of weight to carry. Can you imagine if you—whoever you are—had to live your life knowing you were an inspiration for your entire race and gender?

Nichols became aware of it near the end of Star Trek’s first season, when she decided to leave the show for a Broadway role, and no less than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. persuaded her to stay. She told the story to NPR in 2011.

And wow, did she live up to expectations—with grace (her real name—Grace Dell Nichols), charm, elegance, kindness and humor.

Has anybody ever heard a bad story about Nichelle Nichols? About her being anything but welcoming, friendly and sweet?

Here she is starring in a 1977 recruitment video for NASA:

Uhura is, in truth, not very fleshed out as a character. In the Original Series, she never even had a first name.

So the success of the character is all about the casting—which means, about Nichols. Uhura’s professionalism, strength, resourcefulness and leadership—and, off duty, her camaraderie, her talent, likability, and warmth. It all came through.

We loved her.

I wish I could find an excerpt of the infamous blooper reel where she answers the comm with a Southern accent, “Hi y’all, sugar.” It’s at 10:35 here:

I became a Star Trek fan in the early 1980s, when it was still this goofy cult show for nerds. It wasn’t until The Voyage Home in 1986 (the show’s 20th anniversary) that it started to get mainstream acceptance as a cultural institution, thanks in part to the movie being so good.

By the 1980s, the world wasn’t quite as racist and sexist as it had been—we are, of course, grading on a curve.

But I was aware that the show had made a foundational statement of equality—that in the 1960s, it was an act of great foresight and courage to show a multi-ethnic crew operating together, like this was a perfectly normal state of affairs.

And yes, it was the white male lead in charge—but this golden-haired, All-American boy was secretly a bald, Canadian Jew, haha!

I was, coincidentally, rewatching Star Trek IV last week—not sure why—and it was so delightful seeing the characters played by the “real” cast. It’s like the Henson-era Muppets—everybody sounds like themselves, and it’s so soothing.

It’s just a great cast, with vivid personalities even in roles that often had little to do. They feel like family, like a real team. It’s an inspiration in a crummy world where we are all-too-often at each other’s throats. (See my recent piece on the appeal of Star Trek.)

And now we’ve lost another one.

But it is reassuring to know that Nichelle Nichols lived long enough to know how much she was truly admired, appreciated and loved.

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