Obits To Die For: Nichelle Nichols.
I have a daily subscription to the print edition of the New York Times, which is no small thing in terms of expense. And the truth is, I’m in it for the obituaries. The New Times is famous for its obituaries. There is even a very fine and fun documentary about the NY Times obituary writers, called OBIT.
I have long wanted to build blogs around juicy tidbits from obituaries. And I can think of no better way to start the “Obits To Die For” series than with Nichelle Nichols.
Nichelle Nichols played Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer on the starship U.S.S. Enterprise in STAR TREK, the cult-inspiring space adventure series that was on television in the ’60s. According to the NY Times, Uhura was:
“… an officer and a highly educated and well-trained technician who maintained a businesslike demeanor while performing her high-minded duties. Ms. Nichols was among the first Black women to have a leading role on network television.”
So, she was a trailblazer for Black women, particularly because she played such an intelligent, educated character.
From the NY Times:
“Grace Dell Nichols was born in Robbins, Ill., on Dec. 28, 1932 (some sources give a later year), and grew up in Chicago. Her father, a chemist, was the mayor of Robbins for a time. At 13 or 14, tired of being called Gracie by her friends, she requested a different name from her mother, who liked Michelle but suggested Nichelle for the alliteration.”
Let’s unpack this. 1) She doesn’t like her name, Gracie. She’s 13–14 years old. I can completely understand that. I didn’t like my name at that age either. 2) She tells her mother she doesn’t like her name. It never crossed my mind to tell my mother, to think I had that kind of autonomy. Here, Nichelle’s life and my life part ways. 3) Her mother actually takes her seriously and comes up with a new name for Gracie. 4) Mother thinks up a totally unique name, so her daughter will be the only Nichelle in the world. 5) Nichelle has been validated as a serious, human being. 6) Mom has given her daughter a beautiful gift.
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO BLAZE TRAILS
Besides being a great communications officer, Uhura, along with Captain Kirk, were part of the first interracial kiss on network television. They were forced to do it by the inhabitants of a strange planet.
That’s how difficult it was to show a Black woman and a White man kissing on television in 1968. They had to be forced to do it by space aliens using telekinesis. The episode aired just one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Loving v. Virginia decision struck down state laws against interracial marriage. At the time, Gallup polls showed that fewer than 20% of Americans approved of such relationships.
Well, even though they didn’t choose to do it, they do seem to be enjoying it, don’t you think? I’ll bet Captain Kirk had been waiting forever to find a planet with space aliens who would force him to kiss Lieutenant Uhura. Nichelle Nichols was an incredibly beautiful and sexy woman.
I begin to see why STAR TREK was and continues to be so beloved. I never watched television, so I knew nothing about the U.S.S. Enterprise or Captain Kirk, or Lieutenant Uhura.
During the Comedy Central Roast of Shatner on August 20, 2006, Nichols jokingly referred to the kiss and said, “What do you say, let’s make a little more TV history … and kiss my black ass!”
Where did Nichelle Nichols get the strength to say that?
Truly, I can imagine coming up with the idea of saying that at a roast with all those stars. But I cannot imagine actually saying it out loud. I think NIchols’ strength came from her wonderful relationship with her mother, who gave her the name she desired.
HEARING THE CALL OF DESTINY IN BEVERLY HILLS
Nichols actually considered being Uhura just a job and a resume-builder, She intended to return to acting on Broadway, her true love. So, after the first season, she submitted her resignation to Gene Roddenberry. He asked her to think about it for a few days. Then she went to a party:
(NYT:) In a story she often told, that Saturday night she was a guest at an event in Beverly Hills, Calif. — “I believe it was an N.A.A.C.P. fund-raiser,” she recalled in the Archive interview — where the organizer introduced her to someone he described as “your biggest fan.”
“He’s desperate to meet you,” she recalled the organizer saying. The fan, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., introduced himself.
“He said, ‘We admire you greatly, you know,” Ms. Nichols said, and she thanked him and told him she was about to leave the show. “He said, ‘You cannot. You cannot.”
Dr. King told her that her role as a dignified, authoritative figure in a popular show was too important to the cause of civil rights for her to forgo. As Ms. Nichols recalled it, he said, “For the first time, we will be seen on television the way we should be seen every day.”
On Monday morning, she returned to Roddenberry’s office and told him what had happened. “And I said, ‘If you still want me to stay, I’ll stay. I have to.”
So Dr. King ordered her to give up her great passion so that she could continue to help her people.
“You cannot. You cannot.”
Of course, she might have had an even more trailblazing part on Broadway. But she would have been seen by far fewer people. Nichols felt she was ordered to remain Uhura by someone who had the right to tell her what to do.
“I’ll stay. I have to.”
What an interesting destiny.
After STAR TREK was cancelled, Nichols created a non-profit, Women in Motion, focused on science education for girls. In 1977, Nichols gave a speech to the National Space Institute, challenging the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to “come down from your ivory tower of intellectual pursuit, because the next Einstein might have a Black face — and she’s female.”
NASA responded by asking Nichols to lead a campaign to bring women and people of color to apply for the new Space Shuttle program. Her recruitment videos and speeches throughout the country were directly responsible for recruiting Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, Guion Bluford, the first African American in space, and Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space.
In 1967, Nichelle Nichols was given a decent role for a Black woman in a hokey science fiction television series. She wasn’t playing a servant or a prostitute or a drug addict. Hallelujah! And from that base, she helped change the world.
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