I heard the sad news on Sunday of the passing of Nichelle Nichols. I had always been fond of her character Nyota Uhura on the original Star Trek. Growing up in a fairly liberal household and only catching the original series in reruns, I didn’t find her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise all that surprising. It seemed normal. Of course I was young and honestly naïve and didn’t realize until years later exactly how groundbreaking her presence was. This of course was in contrast to a young African-American woman named Whoopi Goldberg.
Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,” Goldberg says. “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.”
That said, there was always a scene from the episode The Naked Time that stood out to me. Lt. Sulu, under the influence of the polywater and in swashbuckling garb, grabs her and says “I’ll protect you, fair maiden.”
Her response, the title of this post “Sorry, neither” is perhaps the shortest quote that stands out from any of the Star Trek series. However, it wasn’t until recently I learned that some folks interpreted it different from me, and I realized they had a point. They interpreted the neither to mean Uhura was declining the protection and demurring against the “fair maiden” part of the quote. And I certainly can see it that way. And I always figured that was part of it. She was quite clear, she was a Star Fleet officer, as highly trained as Sulu, and not in need of any particular form of protection. This perhaps more than anything else I think helps define her position in Star Fleet and Rodenberry’s and her concept of Uhura. She wasn’t a token.
But, over the years I had focused a bit more on the fair maiden part. I’ve often thought the neither was used to negate both parts of that. Let’s be clear, Nichelle Nichols was by any token a fair woman to set ones gaze on and the camera work in the early Star Trek often used softer lenses to highlight the female cast members. But, as Uhura, while she had the voice of an angel as demonstrated in the Episode Charlie X, it again was clear she wanted to be first considered an officer and a competent crew member. Perhaps in off hours calling her fair would be taken as a complement, but on-duty was an insult.
So that leaves maiden. One often associates the idea of a maiden with being virginal and with that again a certain level of helplessness or having others determine ones fate. Uhura was making it clear that she wasn’t virginal, helpless or incapable of determining her own fate. While in the original Series we never really saw any romantic relationships with her, she in a single sentence made it clear she had probably had them and had a say in how they developed and progressed.
In the end, regardless of how you interpret it, those two words spoke volumes. Nichelle Nichols was playing a character who was capable, confident, competent, and had earned her place on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. Since Star Trek, especially then, has always been an allegory to hold up to the real world, Nichelle Nichols in two words seemingly spoke for every African-American out there.
On a more personal level, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting her and with my daughter getting a picture taken together. This was in 2019 and while it was clear she didn’t have the verve she had from her youth and was seated the entire time, her presence was unmistakable. We were standing in the presence of greatness. I was honored to be there.
Hailing Frequencies Closed.