Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Nichelle Nichols Appreciation Day

Before anyone panics, Nichelle Nichols is still with us! I am doing this random appreciation post to honor her, thanks to the kind of rabbit-hole writing I referred to in my 10th Anniversary post--how I start off with one set of intentions and end up doing something totally different.

First of all, if you don't know about Nichelle Nichols and why she deserves appreciation, then I am going to assume that you are some kind of Generation Z(ombie) brat who would deign to call someone in their mid to late 30s a geriatric Millennial. Like huh? As usual, Gen Xers get no trending nicknames or hashtags, like #OKBoomer. I should feel some kind of way about that...

I have designated May 24 to be Nichelle Nichols Appreciation Day in honor of the fact that y'all pretty much make up nonsensical social media holidays anyway: Siblings Day, Fur Baby Day, Left-Handers Unite, etc. So why not, before someone claims this day for Gene Wilder (trending earlier because there will be yet another remake of Willy Wonka)? I hereby declare and decree that we shall pay appropriate homage to Ms. Nichols, a heroine to my generation and beyond, on every May 24th for now and forever. (Yes, I am aware that I did not finish writing this on May 24, but that is a minor space-time continuum technicality that I expect you to overlook. Carry on and keep reading :)

This all started with this week-old article I saw being discussed on Twitter on Sunday about the late Vivian Cash and her marriage to the one and only Johnny Cash. I won't spend too much time on that (feel free to opine on the BBW Facebook page though), but I will offer some analysis of that as a related tangent. Folks were commenting on the first Mrs. Cash's appearance and race, and other folks were apparently rather naïve to the repercussions of the possibility that she could have been Black and married to a famous country singer in 1960s America. For what it is worth, my opinion on her race is that she probably was what she said she was (Sicilian) because that was what she knew herself to be. Furthermore, what she believed/knew herself to be isn't disproven by the DNA evidence that found traces of African ancestry as there is no evidence that she was passing or had intentionally suppressed information about her identity (like Carol Channing). However, what is clear is that at some point, Vivian Cash had an ancestor whose understanding of American racial identity resulted in a fateful choice...and that's all there is to say about that.

How that relates to Nichelle Nichols is that somewhere in the range of comments, someone posted a link to the episode of Drunk History about the first small-screen interracial kiss. That pivotal moment took place between William Shatner and Nichols in an famous episode of the original classic Star Trek, Plato's Stepchildren, which aired in 1968, the year after the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia. (The first big-screen interracial kiss took place between Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which we discussed earlier this year, along with the Loving decision and other associated topics.) Quite the random coincidence, I happened to click on an article on the Firefox search page about Shatner's latest projects before I saw that link to Drunk History, which reminds me to make sure to go back to watch the most recent episode of A Black Lady Sketch Show (ABLSS) because Ashley Nicole Black is hella funny.

See how my scattered mind works? If you wish to continue on this journey with me, then your assigned viewings for today include watching the "Plato's Stepchildren" kiss scene, the Drunk History episode, and then this recap offered by Ms. Nichols herself about how the kiss happened. Then for extra credit, you need to check out this sketch from ABLSS to fully appreciate Ashley Nicole Black's comedic genius (and okay, here is an obligatory shout out to Raven-Symone, who is rather badass in her own right). Once you have completed all of that, this meandering might make more sense. 

[Insert transitional theme music]

With a nod to the kind of old school posts I wrote during the first year of the Busy Black Woman blog, this is an admiration for a real badass phenomenal woman, except this isn't her birthday. Nor is it the day in history when that ground-breaking "Plato's Stepchildren" episode aired, so this really is random. But as I am always down for chasing wild geese, I was today years old in learning that it was Nichols who helped to recruit many of the diverse candidates that would go on to become pioneers in the space program. One of her recruits was none other than real-life astronaut Mae Jemison, who made a cameo appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation, on an episode directed by thee beloved LeVar Burton, who happened to be making his directorial debut...ON THIS DAY IN 1993! See, wormholes do lead to curious places.

Hence, even if you aren't a lifelong Trekker like me (yes, I have been boldly watching for more than 40 years), Nichelle Nichols deserves her flowers for choosing to sacrifice what might have been a different career in service to the greater good. If she had left Star Trek after that first season, she might have gone onto more success on Broadway. She certainly could have been cast on any number of TV shows, such as the various 70s sitcoms or perhaps a soap opera. Take a good look at her IMDB and note that she doesn't have a diverse resume of roles after Uhura, other than as a voice actress or in a supporting role. The irony of her choice to stick with a show where she felt marginalized was that she was later unable to disassociate herself from that character.

Thus, the second smart move she made was to recognize the power of Lt. Uhura as more than just a intergalactic receptionist. She was a Black woman in space, in the future, with military rank, in a world where Black people had literally just integrated lunch counters. Women weren't even serving in the military like that, so this was a bold new vision of a future that exceeded the reality of our own nascent space program two years before we landed on the moon. Equality in outer space might have seemed delusional in the America of the 1960s; still this show offered a small beacon of hope to the generation of kids like me, who would come of age in post-civil rights America. 

Having grown up watching Star Trek with my Dad (and now being married to a Trekkie), the influence of that show transcends the campy three seasons that remain in perpetual syndication. The Starship Enterprise is itself an enterprise--spawning a cartoon, a series of movies, a next generation television series with several spin-offs that continue to propagate, as well as a rebooted movie franchise. There are books, toys, costumes, a Vegas experience, video games, collectibles, etc., and Lt. Uhura is always included as a core member of the original cast. Although she was never fully developed (I never knew she had a first name, Nyota, until the JJ Abrams reboot), her presence was integral to the multiracial space utopia that series creator Gene Roddenberry had envisioned. Unlike the other red-uniformed ensigns that were likely to perish in some predictable setup, Uhura was constant like the North star.

Nichols leveraged that visibility in both practical and symbolic ways. If she couldn't escape being Uhura, (due to typecasting and that thing some of y'all deny exists), Nichols would use Uhura to serve as an example for what could become possible. The Drunk History skit claims that Nichols personally recruited NASA pioneers Sally Ride, Guion Bluford, and Mae Jemison. Perhaps it is more likely that her character influenced NASA to engage in the kind of outreach that encouraged them to become future astronauts. Mae Jemison has said that she was inspired by seeing Nichols on television. How many other girls were similarly inspired?

And how was Nichols rewarded for her advocacy? With a steady gig, even as her old crew got way too old to be flying off on the whims of the dashing Captain James T. Kirk. She didn't die or get disfigured, but Uhura got to hang out with her boys until she retired from Starfleet. My guess is that as one of the highest ranking Blacks in Starfleet, even in the 23rd Century, there was a need for role models and mentors. Perhaps she encountered the parents of Geordi LaForge at the Academy or a very young Black Vulcan named Tuvak, when he served as a junior science officer under her old pal Captain Sulu. Did she eat at Sisko's Creole Kitchen when Benjamin Sisko was a kid? At some point I will have the Hub to explain how this new Star Trek: Discovery prequel works in the grand scheme of things with two high ranking women serving in Starfleet ten years before Uhura manned that switchboard. No matter...there is no denying the influence Nichols has had in this universe. 

Part of what makes this tribute so personally significant is that in her twilight years, Nichols has had to contend with her fair share of life's tests and travails. It is most heartbreaking to know that she is living with dementia, and unlike her peers who surely earned enough to afford privacy, apparently she was not as fortunate by the looks of this website. In addition to this homage, my hope in elevating her is to ensure that her legacy doesn't get overshadowed by the scandals.

Since distractions and perfectionism tend to alter my best intentions, another popular space odyssey made its debut on May 25, 1977 (its third installment premiered on this same date in 1983). As mesmerized as we all were (and have been) with the Star Wars franchise over the years, in many ways, it was light years behind Star Trek with respect to representation. This is not up for debate at this juncture, but the mere presence of Nichelle Nichols as a regular cast member, even in a limited capacity, had more of a cultural impact for women and people of color.

For all of the shit that William Shatner gets (deservedly so), he earns my respect for having committed to the kiss. Captain Kirk locked lips with any and every woman in his orbit, but kissing a green alien was not the same as kissing his Black secretary, even in the late 1960s. Whether it doomed the show, canceled at the end of that season is anyone's guess, but he could have exercised his right as the star for a different scene. Where another actor might have worried about the collateral damage to his career, he ran with it, and here we are 50 + years later, still fascinated by his Shatnerian audacity. As for Dr. King's persuasive pep talk that got Nichols to stick with the show, I wish people who intentionally misquote him understood why this was the visualization of his dream. If race doesn't matter, then her leaving to pursue other projects wouldn't have made the difference that her staying with the show ultimately did. Read that again--REPRESENTATION MATTERS.

And that's it! Enjoy this unforgettable interplay between Nichols and her other leading man, the great Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and live long and prosper.


  1. Uhura best episode was the mirror universe when she had to distract the very horny and evil Sulu

  2. The Mirror episode is definitely a classic in the Uhura is a badass cannon.