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Explained: Recalling Nichelle Nichols, the trailblazing Lieutenant Nyota Uhura of Star Trek

Nichelle Nichols, known best for her role as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura in the original ‘Star Trek’ series, died on Sunday at the age of 89. Through the trailblazing Star Trek character, Nichols became one of the first black women to have a leading television role. It marked a new era in television history, with Nichols going, to paraphrase the immortal line in Star Trek’s title sequence, where no black woman actor had gone before.

From Grace to Nichelle

Born Grace Dell in 1932, Nichols changed her name at a very young age. When she reportedly asked her parents for a new one, they came up with Nichelle, a spin on the Greek goddess of victory, Nike. At 16, she was a dancer and choreographer, and also sang with jazz musician and composer Duke Ellington in Chicago for one of his musical suites, according to the National Space Society. Later, Nichols performed in the United States, Canada, and Europe, including a guest spot singing with Lionel Hampton.

Nyota Uhura and MLK

Nichols appeared on Star Trek’s debut season in 1966. The intergalactic adventure show had an emphasis on a multiracial and multicultural cast to show that in some far-off future, humans would be more accepting of diversity. Nichols was part of this casting — Lt Nyota Uhura (from the Swahili word uhuru, meaning freedom) was part of the bridge crew of the USS Enterprise as a communications officer.

The non-white cast was mainly in supporting roles, even if non-stereotypical, and story lines mainly revolved around Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) and the human-Vulcan mixed heritage Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Nichols considered leaving the show after the first season — and this was prevented from coming to pass only through the intervention of the civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a Star Trek fan.

Nichols met Dr King at a civil rights gathering in 1967. “We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves,” Nichols told The Wall Street Journal in 2011. “It’s one of the most important things that happened in my life and it changed and defined my career. I took my role much more seriously after that.”

Nichols worked closely with Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry after that to make Uhura a more rounded and formidable character. In many episodes, Uhura is seen as someone the crew and the captain rely on. On her website, Nichols wrote, “Gene Roddenberry believed in me. His belief presented me with a fantastic opportunity: to help conceive and create the groundbreaking role of Uhura on Star Trek, the original series.”

Nichelle Nichols as Lt Uhura on the sets of Star Trek

The interracial kiss

A moment shared by Uhura and Captain Kirk in Star Trek is often regarded as the first inter-racial kiss on television. This was a time when such an act, whether on-screen or in real life, would have met with criticism and protests. The episode, Plato’s Stepchildren, aired in 1968, just a year after interracial marriage was made legal in the US. Yet, the kiss was far from romantic. In the episode, aliens dressed as ancient Greeks torture the crew with telekinesis and force Uhura and Spock to kiss each other.

Despite the contrived nature of the kissing scene, there were many concerns about backlash, especially in the US South. One of the options was to replace Kirk with Spock as Uhura’s kissing partner, as Spock is partly from an alien race. But the actors stuck to the original idea, and the kiss ultimately went ahead as planned.

NASA’s diversity recruiter

Nichols’ pioneering role in the sci-fi series led her to work more closely with spaceflight programmes. When Star Trek, the original series, ended, she volunteered with a NASA Astronaut Corps project to hire marginalised employees. The project recruited America’s first female astronaut, Dr Sally Ride, as well as its first black astronaut, Colonel Guion Bluford.

She went on to serve on the board for the National Space Institute (now National Space Society), a non-profit space advocacy group. Nichols was awarded NASA’s Distinguished Public Service Medal, the agency’s highest form of recognition for a non-government employee.

Upon her passing, NASA tweeted, “We celebrate the life of Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek actor, trailblazer, and role model, who symbolized to so many what was possible. She partnered with us to recruit some of the first women and minority astronauts, and inspired generations to reach for the stars.”

The red minidress that Nichols wore in Star Trek as Uhura’s uniform is in the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

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