The actress who portrayed Uhura in Star Trek was just as groundbreaking as her character. She has led a remarkable life that serves as a vivd illustration of the evolving perception of race and women during the 20th century. The landscape of gender and race relations in science fiction owes a tremendous debt to her and the communications officer she portrayed.
To understand her impact, it’s necessary to acknowledge how drastically different the portrayal of women and African Americans was even less than a hundred years ago. In the 1960s, the best that a black woman could hope for on television was a servant role. Racism was so deeply entrenched that there was simply no possibility of African American actors playing parts equivalent to white actors. This is important, because from our perspective Uhura’s role might appear rather limited. She sits at a console, repeating what she hears on the transmitter, and rarely has any opportunity to do more than that – basically, a glorified receptionist. (She also wears a ridiculous mini-skirt uniform instead of the far more practical pants the men have).
The thing is, progress is relative. Nowadays Uhura’s role might not seem very satisfying, but for its time it was huge. Not to mention that it paved the way for everything afterward, so if it weren’t for her character, we probably wouldn’t be enjoying the diversity that we do have now, even as we continue to seek still better representation. She was a pioneer in more ways than one.
Nichelle Nichols started her career as a dancer and singer in Chicago, but she was catapulted to fame when cast as Nyota Uhura in Roddenberry’s science fiction series Star Trek. Roddenberry had a vision of the future that was highly idealistic, perhaps altogether implausible in an era of segregation and rampant sexism: people of all types and nationalities, every race – and alien species on top of that – working together to peacefully explore the galaxy. His original pilot episode included a woman played by Majel Barrett serving as the captain’s first officer (and she even got to wear pants) but apparently that was too radical for the network. For the new pilot he reworked the structure of the Enterprise’s crew, with most the women relegated to low-ranked Yeomen and acceptable roles like Nurse Chapel for Majel (also, Roddenberry married her, and she too had a long history in the Star Trek universe that’s worth exploring.)
But somehow the show was able to sneak in a very subversive character – not just an African American, and not just a woman, but both – serving as nothing less than a bridge officer. Lieutenant Uhura was a revelation, and audiences noticed. One of those audience members was Martin Luther King, Jr., who was thrilled to find such a role model for his children and all aspiring young women and blacks. When he met Nichols during the first season to personally thank her, she confided that she was planning on leaving the show to return to singing, her true passion. He immediately told her that she had to stay; the inspiration she provided was just too important. So she stayed through the three-season run of the show, and reprised the role as a voice actor in the animated series and in all the original series films.
She added some thoughtful personal touches to the character. Here we find that Uhura, like the actress who portrayed her, is a talented (and playful) singer and dancer. And in an episode wherein Uhura’s memories are erased, Nichols felt that she should speak Swahili, as that is her native language. It’s also important to note that Uhura and Kirk shared the first interracial kiss on television, though within the story it was forced by telekinetic aliens rather than voluntary. There was still too much of a taboo surrounding interracial couples. This unfortunately means that we cannot attribute Uhura’s lack of romantic plots to a progressive notion of expanding women’s roles beyond that of love interest – no, it was racism, plain and simple.
But the very existence of Uhura was a sign that things could change. And they did. Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space, directly cited Star Trek as her inspiration for becoming an astronaut. (And she got to play a role in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation!) Nichols’s influence wasn’t just incidental. She participated in a special NASA project specifically designed to recruit women and minorities into the space program. Thanks to that program we had Sally Ride, the first American woman astronaut, and Guion Bluford, the first African American, as well as Judith Resnik and Ronald McNair and many others. All with the help of a weird little sci-fi show in the 60s. Thank you, Uhura, for opening those hailing frequencies, and opening so many doors.