Nichelle Nichols lifted a generation of women into space
July 31, 2022 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Nichelle Nichols, best known for playing Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek series and in six movies, has died at the age of 89. After her work as one of the first non-stereotypical Black women to star in a network television show (a role that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. implored her to stay in), Nichols set out to "help recruit women and people of color into the space race." Additionally, Nichols was a darling of the convention scene, embracing her status as a beloved role model.
posted by Etrigan (222 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
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Ah, man. You know these things have to happen, but god damn.

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I just watched Plato's Stepchildren on my hotel tv yesterday.

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I watched ST:TAS yesterday, featuring some fantastic voice over work by her as several female characters besides Uhura.
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posted by schmod at 2:42 PM on July 31


β€œIf I have to open hailing frequencies one more time, I’m going to blow up this panel.”

She was the best.
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posted by Pendragon at 2:45 PM on July 31


A lady, full of grace. We are diminished with her loss.
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posted by condour75 at 2:50 PM on July 31


she had such a wonderful voice. a blockbuster talent and inspirational person. I was four for my first memory of Star Trek and I was trying to follow along as best as I could and the scene where uhura and Kirk kiss, I remember turning to my dad and saying is "this show all kissy face?"

πŸŽ™οΈ
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posted by Kattullus at 2:51 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


I am so sad; I know she was not doing well, so maybe this is a relief of some kind, but, damn.

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posted by tommasz at 2:59 PM on July 31


β€œ Star Trek represented, and still does represent, the future we can have, a future that is beyond the petty squabbles we are dealing with here on Earth, now as much as ever, and are able to devote ourselves to the betterment of all human kind by doing what we do so well: explore. This kind of a future isn't impossible - and we need to all rethink our priorities to really bring that vision to life.”

Uhura Fest: 'Star Trek' legend Nichelle Nichols talks Wizard World Philly and transcending race (May 29, 2017)
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posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 3:17 PM on July 31


Uhura was such a great character, even though the writers clearly had no idea what to do with her most of the time, is a testament to Nicholsβ€˜ abilities.

I was recently watching a documentary about Black women in STEM, and one of the women interviewed was like β€œUhura is 100% why I became a scientist.”

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=β€’
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Another beautiful star joins the sky! How lucky we are to have basked in her light for as long as we did.
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Hailing frequencies closed.

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Someone linked to an AMA she on Reddit in 2015 in another discussion about her death. The top question about her conversation with MLK Jr. is astounding:
This is true. I had several conversations with him over the years, and it sounds like the stories have gotten mixed and confused.

I was offered a role on Broadway. I was a singer on stage long before I was an actress, and Broadway was always a dream to me. I was ready to leave Star Trek and pursue what I'd always wanted to do.

Dr. Martin Luther King, quite some time after I'd first met him, approached me and said something along the lines of "Nichelle, whether you like it or not, you have become an symbol. If you leave, they can replace you with a blonde haired white girl, and it will be like you were never there. What you've accomplished, for all of us, will only be real if you stay." That got me thinking about how it would look for fans of color around the country if they saw me leave. I saw that this was bigger than just me.

I got to do a lot of singing after the series ended.
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posted by biffa at 4:14 PM on July 31


The kiss was a milestone in the civil rights movement. It also linked the promise of scientific progress with social progress. The future is for everybody.

People were mad about it, and that would have exposed their vile hatred. It wasn't an act of violence, it was the opposite. How could you be mad at that? I dunno what's wrong that, but what's wrong with you?

Live long and prosper - she did it.
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posted by Faint of Butt at 4:32 PM on July 31 [1 favorite]


RIP - one to beam up
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There were two little girls around 9 years old, 8 years old when Star Trek first came on, and one of them told me years later, "l looked on that television and I saw you. I saw this black lady, and I ran through the house screaming, Come quick! Come quick! There's a black lady on television, and she ain't no maid!"

Ha ha ha! And she said, "l knew right then and there I could be anybody I wanted to be. I could be anything I wanted to be.” And so she decided to be a superstar. Ha ha! And her name is Whoopi Goldberg.
- Nichelle Nichols, Trekkies

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posted by churl at 5:03 PM on July 31 [40 favorites]


Feels like I lost a childhood friend. She was the best part of Star Trek 3.

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posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 5:05 PM on July 31 [9 favorites]


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posted by bryon at 5:08 PM on July 31


I went in to tell Gene Roddenberry that I was leaving after the first season, and he was very upset about it. And he said, take the weekend and think about what I am trying to achieve here in this show. You're an integral part and very important to it. And so I said, yes, I would. And that - on Saturday night, I went to an NAACP fundraiser, I believe it was, in Beverly Hills. And one of the promoters came over to me and said, Ms. Nichols, there's someone who would like to meet you. He says he is your greatest fan.

And I'm thinking a Trekker, you know. And I turn, and before I could get up, I looked across the way and there was the face of Dr. Martin Luther King smiling at me and walking toward me. And he started laughing. By the time he reached me, he said, yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan. I am that Trekkie.

And I was speechless. He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you. He said, no, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you on the - to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. So, I said to him, thank you so much. And I'm going to miss my co-stars.

And his face got very, very serious. And he said, what are you talking about? And I said, well, I told Gene just yesterday that I'm going to leave the show after the first year because I've been offered - and he stopped me and said: You cannot do that. And I was stunned. He said, don't you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch. I was speechless.
- Nichelle Nichols, NPR interview
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I can't think of a black female professional presence on television before her. So cool.
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When I was a young kid, I went to a Star Trek convention where Nichols said the fans had lobbied to get NASA to name the first space shuttle "Enterprise." And that due to her connections with NASA, she was able to proudly inform us that the campaign had succeeded...in part. Although "Columbia" was the name of the first fully functional orbiter, they ended up christening their test shuttle "Enterprise. There's a lot more to the story of Nichols and NASA. The documentary Woman In Motion is on a few streaming platforms, including ad-supported.

I think I remember from Newton's 0th Law of physics that "a woman in motion stays in motion." Until now. May she rest in peace.
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(She was a lieutenant)
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She was an icon

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I’ve known this was coming for a while, but it hits hard all the same.
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She was a class act.
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😒
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posted by freelanceastro at 9:40 PM on July 31


Met her and spent time with her twice, once in Houston and once in Melbourne, Australia. Utterly lovely (and lovely to me) both times. She will be missed.
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posted by mmoncur at 10:11 PM on July 31


For the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day. As intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance - but who can go into space. Who can be lawyers, who can be teachers, who can be professors. Who are, in this state, and yet you don’t see it on television until now.
β€” Martin Luther King Jr.
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β˜…ε½‘
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She was something else, just an amazing human being and we are richer for her presence.
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I met her once at a con a few years ago, and she was gracious to all the fans who lined up for her autograph. She will be remembered.

⋆
posted by Gelatin at 4:16 AM on August 1 [2 favorites]


I've read all of Harry Turtledove's alt.history Worldwar books (there's eight of them, but the series really could've been edited down to just seven, or even six) and an amusing highlight comes in the conclusion, when humanity's second or third starship shows up at the Lizard homeworld, with Captain Nichelle Nichols in command.
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I'm not sure a moment of silence seems right for someone who is so indelibly associated with communicating, but it's what we have here.

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I'm not sure it's the most important thing she did, but I personally know several scientists who were very directly inspired by her character as kids. I'm in the LeVar Burton generation and didn't really see her work in Trek until I was an adult. But, it's still really impressive. Especially given the quality of some of the writing she was given. I recently watched a few TAS episodes - which I don't entirely recommend - but her voice acting for multiple different characters in conversation with each other was also world class.
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<3.
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posted by kaymac at 8:07 AM on August 1


I came in to post the Whoopi Goldberg quote as well. I've also heard her say that she always wanted to be on Star Trek because of Nichols, because as far as the media was concerned up to that point, "before Lt. Uhura, there were no Black people in the future."

In a world and a time when so many female science fiction crew members were only there for sex appeal, she managed to never let them take away her intelligence or her dignity. So much respect.

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posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:39 AM on August 1


From The Naked Time:

Drunken, shirtless Sulu: "I'll protect you, fair maiden!"

Lt. Uhura: "Sorry, neither."
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.\\//
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posted by R343L at 12:26 PM on August 1


♥ Nichelle ♥
posted by Lynsey at 12:42 PM on August 1


(She was a lieutenant)

Canonically, she made it to captain.
posted by hanov3r at 12:48 PM on August 1 [4 favorites]


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posted by Melismata at 12:51 PM on August 1


Canonically, she made it to captain.

Not just in rank but command of a starship, which TOS established is for the best of the best.

Since the display of the USS Leondegrance appeared in Picard, I wonder if it has to be a reference to the character Patrick Stewart played in Excalibur.
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posted by HiddenInput at 1:51 PM on August 1


She is terrific, I'm so glad I got to be here for part of her time.
posted by winesong at 1:53 PM on August 1


Like several other people in this thread, I met her at a convention once. Just a super nice lady, and she had time for all the fans. She'll be missed.

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posted by Gray Duck at 1:56 PM on August 1


Fact Trek posted a typically microscopic story on the racial environment on television around the time Star Trek was on the air.
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posted by solotoro at 5:02 PM on August 1


Saxon Kane: From The Naked Time:

Drunken, shirtless Sulu: "I'll protect you, fair maiden!"

Lt. Uhura: "Sorry, neither."


Multiple sources over the years have said that she ad-libbed that line. What a legend.

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posted by tzikeh at 6:12 PM on August 1 [11 favorites]


Drunken, shirtless Sulu: "I'll protect you, fair maiden!"

Lt. Uhura: "Sorry, neither."

Multiple sources over the years have said that she ad-libbed that line. What a legend.


Two actors of color. A gay man and a woman. With a joke worthy of Shakespeare in its ribaldry. On American prime-time network television in 1966. That was a big deal!
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posted by pelvicsorcery at 10:11 PM on August 1


I'm so happy that this marvelous woman and the unforgettable part she played have been lights in my life for more than four decades. I'm quite sure they have been a subtle good influence on my life and thinking.

RIP and may we all meet in Jannah Insha Allah.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 2:25 AM on August 2 [4 favorites]


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posted by gentlyepigrams at 7:10 AM on August 2


a legend and an icon. the galaxy will miss her.
posted by BekahVee at 7:26 AM on August 2 [1 favorite]


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posted by koucha at 10:39 AM on August 4


What a loss, and so honored to have shared a timeline with an icon.
posted by Space Kitty at 8:07 PM on August 5


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