Nichelle Nichols - an inspirational Afro Supa Hero

In 2022 Whoopi Goldberg returns to Star Trek to reprise the role of Guinan in the second season of Star Trek: Picard. This seems a fitting time to remember the ground-breaking nature of the original series and of one character in particular.

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Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry brought together a diverse cast for the key roles to represent his dream of a future where all nations worked together in harmony for the good of the planet. The series might be set in space with a range of fantastical alien species but during the Cold War era it could have seemed just as unlikely to have the Russian officer Chekov working alongside his American colleagues on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Star Trek action figure in original packaging

Lt Uhura figure, Star Trek. Courtesy of Jon Daniel. © Mego Toy Corporation and Paramount Pictures. 1974.

However, the most influential character of the 1960s series was probably Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. She only had a relatively minor role as the communications officer, something which was beautifully parodied by Sigourney Weaver’s character in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest.

Apparently Nichelle Nichols considered leaving the show as her character had so little to do. Dr Martin Luther King Jr convinced her to stay, when he told her how important it was for people to see an African American woman on the bridge of the Enterprise as an officer. She stayed and became a role model for many people. Perhaps most memorably, the actress Whoopi Goldberg later remembered:

"Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a Black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be."

Whoopi Goldberg herself joined the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation as Guinan in 1988. And Uhura didn’t just inspire fictional space travellers, as Dr Mae Jemison, a mission specialist aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour who became the first Black woman to enter space in 1992, has also described Star Trek as an influence on her career.

Exhibition display including several action figures

The figure of Lt Uhura was part of the display about inspirational role models from popular culture in the Afro Supa Hero exhibition. © David Jones

In 1968 a kiss between Uhura and Captain Kirk is believed to be the first example of a scripted inter-racial kiss on United States television. This was so controversial at the time that the scene was filmed with and without the kiss so that the network could choose whether to show it or not. However Nichols and her co-star William Shatner deliberately messed up every take that didn’t include the kiss so that it would be shown.

Uhura continues to be a popular character and fittingly played more of a key role in the more recent Star Trek films which rebooted the franchise. However Zoe Saldana, the modern Uhura, and many other actresses of her generation undoubtedly owe a debt of thanks to the original trailblazer, which is why I think it’s fitting that the original Uhura had a place as an Afro Supa Hero in our 2016 exhibition.

The Afro Supa Hero exhibition was at the International Slavery Museum May to December 2016.