Explained: Recalling Nichelle Nichols, the trailblazing Lieutenant Nyota Uhura of Star Trek

Nichelle Nichols, best known for her role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the original Star Trek series, He passed away on Sunday at the age of 89. Through the lead character of Star Trek, Nichols became one of the first black women to have a leading television role. It was a new era in television history, with Nichols going, to rework the immortal streak in the Star Trek title sequence, where no black woman actor had gone before.

From Grace to Nishil

Born Grace Dale in 1932, Nichols changed her name at a very young age. When she is said to have asked her parents for a new one, they came up with Nichelle, which is about the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. At 16, she was a dancer and choreographer, and also sang with Chicago jazz musician and composer Duke Ellington on one of his musical suites, according to the National Space Society. Later, Nichols performed in the United States, Canada and Europe, including guest vocals with Lionel Hampton.

Nyota Uhura and MLK

Nichols appeared in the first season of Star Trek in 1966. The intergalactic adventure show focused on a multi-ethnic, multicultural crew to show that in the far future, humans will be more receptive to diversity. Nichols was part of this selection – Lieutenant Nyota Oora (from the Swahili word Uhuru, meaning freedom) was part of the bridge crew at the USS Enterprise as a communications officer.

The cast was primarily non-white in supporting roles, albeit atypical, and the story lines revolved primarily around Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) and the mixed human and Vulcan heritage Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Nichols considered leaving the show after the first season—and this was only prevented from going through by the intervention of civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a Star Trek fan.

Nichols met Dr. King at a civil rights rally in 1967. “We talked for a long time about what it all meant and what the images on TV were telling us about ourselves,” Nichols told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. “It’s one of the most important things that happened in My life changed and defined my career. I took my role more seriously after that.”

Nichols worked closely with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry thereafter to make Uhura a more well-rounded and adorable character. In many episodes, Uhura is seen as someone the crew and captain depend on. Nichols wrote on her website, “Jane Roddenberry believed in me. His belief gave me a wonderful opportunity: to help conceptualize and create the leading role of Uhura in Star Trek, the original series.”

Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura on the sets of Star Trek

interracial kiss

The moment Uhura and Captain Kirk share in Star Trek is often seen as the first interracial kiss on television. This was a time when such an act, both on screen and in real life, would face criticism and protests. The episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, aired in 1968, just one year after interracial marriage was made legal in the United States. However, the kiss was far from romantic. In the episode, aliens dressed as the ancient Greeks torture the crew with telekinesis and force Uhura and Spock to kiss each other.

Despite the contrived nature of the kissing scene, there were many concerns about the backlash, especially in the southern United States. One option was to replace Kirk with Spock as Uhura’s kissing partner, as Spock is partly of an alien race. But the actors stuck with the original idea, and the kiss eventually continued as planned.

Diversity recruiter at NASA

Nichols’ leading role in the science fiction series led her to work closely with spaceflight programs. When Star Trek, the original series, ended, I volunteered with the NASA Astronaut Corps project to hire marginal employees. The project enlisted the first American female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride, as well as the first black female astronaut, Colonel Joyon Bluford.

She continued to serve on the board of directors of the National Space Institute (now the National Space Society), a non-profit space advocacy group. Nichols was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the agency’s highest form of recognition for a nongovernmental employee.

Upon her death, NASA tweeted, “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actress, pioneer, and role model, who symbolized so much that was possible. She’s partnered with us to hire some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for stars “.

The red dress that Nichols wore in Star Trek in a Uhura uniform is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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