Every year, in every way, Nichelle Nichols becomes even more beloved than she was before (if that’s possible). She’s regal, elegant and ever-so charming.
As many of you know, because you’ve met her. She has made numerous convention appearances over the last four decades with more slated throughout this Star Trek 50th Anniversary year, all celebrating Gene Roddenberry’s star-spanning saga and her groundbreaking role in it as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura.
“Many fans, even to this day, when meeting Nichelle Nichols are a little jolted that I am not Uhura,” the actress admitted to Trek novelist Robert Greenberger in Starlog #100. “I don’t act like Uhura. I have a totally different personality. So, I find people discovering that, and they act like they’re meeting a whole new character.”As for that on-screen alter-ego, “The quality of Uhura’s character was such that you could admire her on the one hand as a woman of strength, confidence and compassion, and yet she was a female female,” she told CNN’s Brian Lowry, then reporting for Starlog, in 1987. “I mean, she had legs and boobs and high cheekbones and a little waistline and different hairdos. I don’t think she’s diminished by a short skirt, boots and jade earrings.”
There have been countless opportunities to meet Nichols, a self-described “fan of the fans,” in person. At conventions, we Trekkers line up for personal audiences with our beloved, to get her autograph, pose for photos with her or just chat. Above all, we’ve heard the legends of her life.
Primarily, there are three of them—stories that Nichols has told in most convention appearances and many interviews (at least eight talks with Starlog plus chats with other magazine, newspaper, TV and radio outlets) as well as in her 1994 autobiography Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories. One anecdote concerns how her father suggested she confront obstacles of all kinds in life: “If you have lemons, make lemonade.”Another focuses on a remarkable milestone involving a kiss from Uhura, one bestowed in “Plato’s Stepchildren,” an episode of Star Trek broadcast in 1968. That’s where Lieutenant Uhura and Captain Kirk share what Nichols and William Shatner call TV’s first interracial kiss (albeit one “forced” by their mythic captors, a technicality that somewhat smoothed the ruffled mind-sets of race-conscious TV execs). It was a significant advance in what could be/had been portrayed til then on American television screens.
And the third? The most legendary of all! As she tells it, circa the end of Trek’s first season (1966-67), Nichols was considering departing the series because she felt she didn’t have enough to do. And she really didn’t, you know, but that was also true storywise for the characters played by James Doohan, George Takei and Majel Barrett Roddenberry. Nichols confided in legendary civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who took a different view. She had to remain on board the series, King argued, because her very presence on the U.S.S. Enterprise Bridge promised that black people would be a fully integral, equal part of all our tomorrows—on Earth and in outer space. Imagine! Nichols was, King declared, an important role model for minority youngsters and young women looking to the future.
“Martin Luther King asked me not to leave,” Nichols explained to Ian Spelling (Starlog #151, 1990). “He said my role of Uhura was important because it was a major role played by a black that was not specifically designed for a black or a female. He said Uhura was not a small character, that I was 10 feet tall and that I was opening many doors. I had no intention of leaving the show after he said that. But I’ve got to be honest with you. I still look back on that decision with mixed emotions.”
As Nichols elaborated two years later in another Starlog conversation with Spelling, King “told me, ‘You’ve opened a door that can never be closed again. You’ve changed the face of television.’ That is no small achievement. And I am very, very proud.”
However, “I don’t want anybody being color-blind when they look at me,” she announced in Lowry’s Starlog #116 interview. “I resent somebody saying, ‘Oh, I don’t mind that she’s black, I’m color-blind.’ Well, wake up, fella, and smell the roses. I like being who I am, and I’ll be damned if I want you accepting me in spite of the fact that I’m a woman, and I’m black and I’m whoever I am. Deal with me, and appreciate and accept me for what I am.”
And that’s someone extremely important, in my view, to science fiction.Let me explain. In 1985, we were looking for a theme to mark Starlog #100 and make that landmark edition something special. Initially, I suggested a feature dubbed “The 12 Most Important People in Science Fiction.” I envisioned them as the genre’s founding fathers (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells), pioneering SF magazine editors (Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell), innovative writers (Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke), TV creators (Rod Serling, Roddenberry) and moviemakers (George Lucas, Steven Spielberg). To truly celebrate Starlog’s centenary issue, though, we expanded that idea from a mere dozen to an issue-number-matching “100 Most Important People in SF & Fantasy.” Further nominations came from me (as Editor), Managing Editor Carr D’Angelo, Special FX Editor David Hutchison and Publisher Kerry O’Quinn. And I championed Nichelle Nichols.
“Why?” You might ask.
I’ll tell you. Because, in a certain aspect, there was no contemporary person more important than Nichelle Nichols on that list. I’ll pause while you ponder that declaration. And, again, why?
Because, you see, after Star Trek’s resurgent popularity in the 1970s, Nichols began to work with NASA, recruiting would-be astronauts for the space shuttle and trying to diversify its off-planet legions with more women and minorities (like Sally Ride and Mae Jemison). She’s the only person that I could think of back then in 1985–or now, three decades later, for that matter–who actually transformed her science fictional celebrity into true heroism. Imagine! The woman who pretended to be an adventurer in space spurred on others to really reach for the stars. That’s some important role model!
“That was a very successful venture, very rewarding in my life….The first six women and three black men, as well as the first Asian and Indian astronauts are because of me,” Nichols noted to Spelling in Starlog #175. “I had a touch with history,”Personally, I just love Nichelle Nichols. She has been consistently wonderful every time I’ve been in her presence. Which reminds me of the other kiss. Let me explain that.
It was the first time I met her in, I guess, 1986. We were both seated next to each other on stage at a Creation Entertainment-sponsored Starlog Festival convention judging a costume contest. In between cosplaying contestants, I asked her if she had seen the recently published Star Trek Movie Poster Magazine I had edited. “Because,” I told her, having selected all the photos for that publication, “I gave you solo posters in that.” They were two-foot-square fold-outs featuring terrific (“cheesecake” publicity shot) images of Nichols, one of them showing off her legs. Perfect for autographs!
“You did that!?!” she exclaimed, obviously delighted by my editorial decision to showcase her. And Nichelle Nichols spontaneously grabbed me, unaffected by mythic captors forcing her to do anything, and suddenly kissed me!
Wow! I was gobsmacked, flabbergasted, utterly charmed! This legend, so beloved for so many years, had kissed me. Imagine! Fanboy nirvana!
Now, here we are celebrating a half-century of the saga that made her famous. And Nichelle Nichols is still humbled by it all. As she told Starlog‘s Karen E. Willson way back in 1980 (issue #36), “You know, I’ve lived with Star Trek for so long, that I can’t remember when it wasn’t a part of my life.”
Imagine! We can’t either.
David McDonnell, “the maitre’d of the science fiction universe,” has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly “Media Report” news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2016 David McDonnell
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