Dr. King, Nichelle Nichols, and Dr. Mae Jemison

Summary: an article about Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in the original Star Trek, and Mae Jemison, first black woman in space.

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Curator’s note: this post didn’t make it into today’s lineup at the main blog—I wrote this way late last night/early this morning—but I wanted to share it because it does speak to the power of seeing one’s image in pop culture. It’s also one of my favorite stories about Dr. King. ~~Andrea (AJ) Plaid

[Image: a grayscale photo of Nichelle Nichols, the black actress who played Uhura on Star Trek, at NASA mission control surrounded by black people.]

In honor of Dr. King’s birthday and the US government choosing Dr. Jemison to lead a multigenerational mission to the nearest galaxy this past week, let’s look at the woman who connects these two historic people: actor and advocate Nichelle Nichols, who also made history.

From the Wall Street Journal blog:

I understand that the Uhura character didn’t even exist before you were hired.

I walked in to the interview with this magnificent treatise on Africa by [Robert] Ruark called Uhuru, which is Swahili for Freedom. Gene said he really liked the name of that book and wanted to use the title as a first name. I said, why don’t you do an alliteration of the name Uhuru and soften the N and make it Uhura? He said you are Uhura and that belongs to you.

How much input did you have in creating Uhura?

I created my background, where she came from, my parents. They were ambassadors and one was a scientist, so I had this to live up to as well as the expectations of Spock. I made him Uhura’s mentor.

It sounds like you put a lot of thought into the part. Why did you want to quit after the first season?

After the first year, Grace Lee Whitney was let go so it became Bill and Leonard. The rest of us became supporting characters. I decided to leave the show after the first season.

What convinced you to stay on?

I was at a fundraiser and the promoter of the event said there’s somebody that wants to meet you. He is your biggest fan. I stood up and turned to see the beatific face of Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with a sparkle in his eye. He took my hand and thanked me for meeting him. He then said I am your greatest fan. All I remember is my mouth opening and shutting.

What was that like?

I thanked him so much and told him how I’d miss it all. He asked what I was talking about, and told me that I can’t leave the show. We talked a long time about what it all meant and what images on television tell us about ourselves.

Did you know then how much of a role model you’d become?

Oh, god, no. I thought of it as a stepping stone to Broadway. I went back to Gene and told him what had happened, and that I was staying. He smiled up at me and said, thank god for Dr. Martin Luther King.

Did the experience change how you played Uhura?

Nichols: 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.

Because of this conversation and because Nichols took King’s advice, she inspired generations of people—especially young Black girls—to imagine themselves in space. One of those people is former NASA astronaut  Dr. Mae Jemison, who is a longtime friend of Nichols.

[Image: a photo of Nichelle Nichols and Mae Jemison.]

From Dr. Jemison’s alumni publication:

“Images show us possibilities,” the Stanford graduate says. “A lot of times, it’s fantasy that gets us through reality.”

A quarter of a century after Lt. Uhura boldly went where no African American had gone before, her protegee returned the favor. Before blasting into orbit aboard the Endeavour in 1992, Jemison, the first woman of color in space, called actress Nichelle Nichols to thank her for the inspiration. And then she made a promise:

Despite NASA’s rigid protocol, Jemison would begin each shift with a salute that only a Trekkie could appreciate. “Hailing frequencies open,” she could be heard repeating throughout the eight-day mission.

Jemison also paid the favor forward: she appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. According to Slice of SciFi, Jemison has “the distinction of being the first real astronaut to appear in a Star Trek series.” She also co-founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which sponsors a international science camp and, according to the wiki about her, appeared at a “forum for promising girls” in Washington, DC, with FLOTUS Michelle Obama in 2009.

Just something to think about on this holiday.

Photo credits: Star Talk Radio and Collect Space

I adore both these women.