Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Sunday, December 28, 2008
Today Nichelle Nichols, the beautiful actress who made television history with her portrayal of Lt. Uhura, celebrates her 76th birthday. Also on this day, the nation is little more than 3 weeks away from the inauguration of its first African-American President. Regardless of which candidate one individually supported in the election; all Americans can take pride in the fact that the country truly chose its next leader based upon an assessment of the content of his character and abilities as opposed to the color of his skin. Without achieving a broad support from all demographic groups, as African-Americans comprise approximately 12.3% of the U.S. population, Barack Obama could not have been victorious.
Very few individuals can look back on their careers and can say that they played a significant role in the shaping of the consciousness of their nation; but I believe that Nichelle Nichols can do so. With her pioneering role as a senior officer aboard a harmonious, multi-racial starship crew on 1960’s television – a role that completely broke down the stereotypes of those years – Nichelle helped to establish the enlightened mindset that enabled the election of the President in 2008. Remember, in the America of the 1960s, when the time came for filming the memorable scene in the Star Trek episode “Plato’s StepChildren” (airdate Nov. 22, 1968) which contained the first televised interracial kiss in American television history; there was much controversy and concern among the network executives that broadcasting something as innocent by today’s standards as a kiss would generate tremendous backlash from the viewing public – particularly against the networks Southern affiliate stations. As it turned out, the episode was greeted with a huge and overwhelmingly positive public response, with the exception of a single objection, as discussed by Nichelle in her autobiography “Beyond Uhura” (Putnam, 1994) …
… I received a note from Gene that read: “Thought you’d be interested. This is the only “negative” fan mail we got.” Attached was a photocopy of this letter: I’m a white Southern gentleman, and I like Star Trek. I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.” It only took a few days before some of the front-office executives … began boasting of their support for this brave step in television history.
Of course it wasn’t a single event like the kiss which would help transform attitudes. It was several years of regularly portraying the role of Lt. Uhura – entering the homes of the viewing public during the initial run of the series and, indeed, perhaps more significantly, during the many years in which the popularity of the show grew tremendously during reruns in syndication.
Not all fans of Star Trek: The Original Series are aware that Nichelle Nichols came extremely close to leaving the show at the completion of the first season; and had in fact met with Gene Roddenberry and resigned after filming the last episode of the year. It was an unanticipated historic encounter literally the next day that caused Nichols to re-evaluate her decision. As described in “Beyond Uhura” …
The following evening I attended an important NAACP fund-raising event. I was chatting with someone when a man approached and said, “Nichelle, there is someone who would like to me you. He’s a big fan of Star Trek and of Uhura.”
I turned to greet this “fan” and found myself gazing upon the face of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was stunned, and I remember thinking, Whoever that fan is, he’ll just have to wait.
The man introduced us. Imagine my surprise when the first words Dr. King uttered were, “Yes, I am that fan, and I wanted to tell you how important your role is.”
He began speaking of how he and his children watched Star Trek faithfully and how much they adored Uhura. At that moment the impact of my decision really struck me. Nevertheless, I replied, “Thank you, Dr. King, but I plan to leave Star Trek.”
“You cannot,” he replied firmly, “and you must not. Don’t you realize how important your presence, your character is?” he went on. “Don’t you realize this gift this man has given the world? Men and women of all races going forth in peaceful exploration, living as equals. You listen to me: Don’t you see? This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first nonstereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground –“
“There have been other Black stars,” I countered.
“In TV?” he replied. “Yes, Beulah, Amos and Andy. Do I need to go further?”
“No,” I answered softly.
“You must not leave. You have opened a door that must not be allowed to close. I’m sure you have taken a lot of grief, or probably will for what you’re doing. But you changed the face of television forever. You have created a character of dignity and grace and beauty and intelligence. Don’t you see that you’re not just a role model for little Black children? You’re more important for people who don’t look like us. For the first time, the world sees us as we should be seen, as equals, as intelligent people – as we should be. There will always be role models for Black children; you are a role model for everyone.
“Remember, you are not important there in spite of your color. You are important there because of your color. This is what Gene Roddenberry has given us.”
All that weekend Dr. King’s words echoed in my mind as I weighed every factor. Perhaps he was right: Perhaps Uhura was a symbol of hope, a role model. And if that were the case, did I not owe it another chance? Granted, Uhura’s full potential had not been realized, and sadly, probably wouldn’t be. But she was there, wasn’t she? And that had to count for something.
When I returned to work on Monday, I went to Gene’s office first thing and told him about my conversation with Dr. King and my decision to stay.
A tear came to Gene’s eye, and he said, “God bless that man. At least someone sees what I’m trying to achieve.”
I’m certain I join with millions of fellow Star Trek fans who wish Nichelle Nichols the very best regards on her birthday today. And, if any person is worthy of receiving a special invitation to view the upcoming Inaugural ceremonies from the VIP Presidential Platform, I can think of few more deserving than Nichelle Nichols.
Some rarely seen photos taken during TOS production. In addition to this post, readers are also encouraged to view the first gallery on this topic at: http://startrekpropauthority.blogspot.com/2008/04/some-rare-tos-behind-scenes-photos.html