Friday, September 4, 2009

Dudette of the Week: Nichelle Nichols

It's really easy to forget that the 60s were only 40 years ago, but were a completely different time. A time where the world, especially in the USA, were divided on racial lines. So, perhaps it's hard to imagine that a simple TV starlet could make a huge difference in individual lives, not to mention the entire world. I'm talking about:

Nichelle Nichols

Star Trek was a big deal. Let's remember what it was all about. Back in the 60s, during the space race, before man had ever walked on the moon, a guy named Gene Roddenberry had an idea for a semi-utopian future, in which space exploration had united the planet Earth, along with some other friendly alien species. These friendly species worked together, spreading the Earth-like ideals throughout the galaxy.

The first idea that Roddenberry had was that the crew of the fictional Enterprise had to be of all races and types. You had the generic James Kirk (American - Iowa), Leonard McCoy (American - South), Hikaru Sulu (Japan), Montgomery Scott (Scotland), Pavel Chekov (Russian), and Uhura (African). The inclusion of four foreigners, and Spock, really set Star Trek aside from many of the series of the day.

Nichelle Nichols, as everyone knows, was cast as Uhura. What you didn't know about her is that, aside from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, Nichols got the most fanmail by far at the NBC studios. It's just that she wasn't given it. It took a concerted effort from Nimoy to convince NBC to give her equal standing.

In addition, most of Roddenberry's attempts to include Uhura as a main cast member were rebuffed by the network. That's why she had the fucked up eye-makeup - so that in black and white TV, she looked more Asian than anything. But starting in the second season, she was given a serious role.

She persevered because she was convinced that she had suddenly become a role model in the black community, despite the ingrained racism at NBC. Apparently she was about to quit, and she was finally convinced of her role - by a man named Martin Luther King, Jr, who took the time to meet her when he heard she was about to quit. Nichols stuck with it, and she ended up, well...famous.

It's not just Star Trek. Those who know me will be shocked, but Nichelle has been fantastically influential in other fields. First of all, she was a recruiter for NASA, helping them get new astronaut candidates in the female and minority range. The first lady black astronaut, Mae Jemison, cited Nichols as a huge inspiration. She also recruited Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, and by all accounts was terribly shaken after the Challenger disaster, when two astronauts she had recruited (Doctors Judy Resnik and Ron McNair) died in the explosion.

Nichelle has been part of Star Trek movies, of course, but also been in any number of roles, including in Heroes, recently. She played herself in Futurama a couple times. But she was a participant in one of the first cross-racial kisses, with Bill Shatner. This was a defining moment in her career.

But we should look back on this amazing woman's career, both as a black American icon, a lover of space exploration, and a great actress who has given so much back to Star Trek fans over the years, and realize perhaps a defining moment in our history was when Nichelle Nichols was cast as Uhura - and when she fully embraced the role, and all the responsibility it had unexpectedly brought.

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