Thursday, August 09, 2007

Nichelle Nichols

Another installment in my ongoing series of articles on transgender and non-transgender women who have qualities that I admire.

photos-Nichelle Nichols in 2004, as Lt Uhura, the EBONY magazine cover, Dr. Mae Jemison, Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan, the christening of the Space Shuttle Enterprise

Nichelle Nichols in addition to being a trailblazing actress has been an inspiration for people of my generation and subsequent ones to not only follow their dreams, but reach for the stars.

She was born in Robbins, IL as Grace Nichols on December 28, 1932, just outside Chicago. She toured the Unites States, Canada and Europe with the Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington bands. She appeared in a Chicago production of Carmen Jones before she moved west and had her fateful meeting with Gene Roddenberry. Before casting her as Lt. Nyota Upenda Uhura on Star Trek, she'd worked as a guest actress on Roddenberry's first television series The Lieutenant.

As we Trekkies all know, it was Star Trek that made her a historical icon, launched her life into a new direction and sharpened her interest in space exploration.

But she almost quit the show. Frustrated during the first season over what she perceived as playing just a glorified telephone operator, she was ready to hang up the Starfleet uniform until she ran into Dr. Martin Luther King at a civil rights rally. Dr. King was a huge Star Trek fan and urged her not to quit. He pointed out to her that she was the first African-American actress who was on a network TV show playing a non-stereotypical role.

According to Nichols, he told her "Don't you know you have the first non-stereotypical role in television? For the first time the world will see us as we should be seen -- people of quality in the future. You created a role with dignity and beauty and grace and intelligence. You're not just a role model for our children, but for people who don't look like us to see us for the first time as equals."

She stayed and later made television history with the first interracial kiss on TV with costar William Shatner. She costarred in the six subsequent Star Trek movies and eventually her character was promoted to Commander.

Once Star Trek ended, she worked for NASA in the 70's and early 80's as part of a program to not only encourage African-American youth to consider math and science careers but recruit women and minority astronauts for NASA. She recruited Dr. Sally K. Ride, US Air Force Col. Guion Bluford (the first African-American in space), Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ron McNair, who flew missions before both were killed in the 1986 Challenger disaster. The essay contest I won in 8th grade in which I earned a trip to NASA was part of that program.

And like other issues that Dr. King was prescient on, he was on target in terms of Nichols being a role model to African-American children and others. She was the inspiration for another Chicago girl who grew up to become the first African-American woman in space, Dr. Mae C. Jemison. She also inspired a New York City girl by the name of Caryn Elaine Johnson to shoot for an entertainment career after seeing her on Star Trek. Caryn Elaine Johnson would not only accomplish that goal, but would have a recurring role herself on Star Trek-The Next Generation as Guinan.

Nichols is considered part of the NASA family. She flew aboard NASA's C-141 Astronomy Observatory on its eight hour high altitude mission to analyze the atmospheres of Mars and Saturn. She was present along with her Star Trek castmates when the first space shuttle Enterprise was christened and was a guest of the Jet Propulsion Lab when Viking 1 soft landed on Mars on July 17, 1976. She has written two science-fiction novels about a tough black woman in space, Saturn's Child and its sequel, Saturna's Quest and is working on a third. She has since the mid 80's sat on the Board of Governors for the National Space Society.

So if you haven't had the pleasure of meeting her like I did back in the mid 70's, check out this multi-talented and passionate ambassador for space exploration.

Live long and prosper, Nichelle.


Jackie said...

Thank you so much for this. I had no idea she was born in Robbins or that she was a singer or that she worked for NASA. I certainly didn't know Dr. King was a Trekkie! For some reason, that's so cool. And he is right, role models are amazingly important.

Thanks also for the link back to the 8th grade post. Excellant.

Monica Roberts said...

That tidbit surprised me as well, but not really.

Dr King was also loved science as well and saw no conflict between being a Christian and being a scientist.

Today the so called 'christians' run from any science that doesn't jibe with their narrow, biogted beliefs