Groundbreaking, game-changing, inspiration, role model. Nichelle Nichols has been called all of these–and they’re all true. She set the standard for representation and opened up a new universe to millions of fans. The legendary actress, known as Lt. Uhura in Star Trek: The Original Series, died Sunday at the age of 89.
During Star Trek’s initial run from 1966-69, her presence on the bridge of the Enterprise as its communications officer was history making. She was the only Black woman on TV who wasn’t portrayed in a demeaning role.
When she wanted to quit the series to work on a Broadway play, it was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who famously told her how influential she and Uhura were, and that she couldn’t leave the show.
Though The Original Series’ 1960s time didn’t allow Uhura much character development, through facial expressions and body language, Nichols always let us see the regal power and advanced intelligence behind her eyes. As the only Black woman on a ship dominated by men, Uhura never let herself be diminished or secondary.
Long before the world acknowledged how important representation was, Nichols defined the concept. There are women actively making this world better, because they saw Uhura on the Enterprise and were inspired by her. She has been cited as a role model by everyone from Stacey Abrams, to Michelle Obama, to Mae Jemison. Within the Star Trek franchise, Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green and Wilson Cruz, Voyager’s Kate Mulgrew, Strange New Worlds’ Celia Rose Gooding and The Next Generation’s LeVar Burton have all said their roles wouldn’t be possible without the groundbreaking actress’ work.
Burton tweeted, “Y’all, @nichelleisuhuru. Heartbroken at the news of her passing, however, I am comforted in the knowledge that she illuminated the way for so [many of us] with her grace, beauty, talent, intelligence and her commitment to humanity going boldly to the stars! #godess #queen”
Accompanied by a photo of herself with Nichols, Abrams wrote,”One of my most treasured photos - Godspeed to Nichelle Nichols, champion, warrior and tremendous actor. Her kindness and bravery lit the path for many. May she forever dwell among the stars. #RIPNichelle #Uhura”
Even Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter, acknowledged the actress’ impact, tweeting, “Many actors become stars, but few stars can move a nation. Nichelle Nichols showed us the extraordinary power of Black women and paved the way for a better future for all women in media. Thank you, Nichelle. We will miss you.”
I’ve always been an awkward, weird kid who didn’t fit in. Growing up, there were very few places where I felt comfortable. One of those was in front of my television, watching Star Trek. My favorite character has always been Lt. Uhura.
Nichelle Nichols gave me a role model in a space where there weren’t many other people who looked like me. As a nerdy Black girl who loved comic books and sci-fi/fantasy, I got a lot of so-called “fans” telling me this wasn’t my world and I wasn’t allowed. My stubbornness wouldn’t let me listen to those jerks, but I also knew that if Uhura was on my TV every night, there was definitely a place for me.
After years of missing my chance at previous conventions, a few years ago at Los Angeles Comic-Con, I finally got the honor of meeting my idol and it was just as amazing as I thought it would be. As I told her how much I loved and admired her, something she’s likely heard thousands of times, she humbly thanked me for being a lifelong fan, and even complimented me on my Uhura cosplay. It’s one of the highlights of my life and one of my all-time favorite memories.
For me, and countless others, Nichelle Nichols was an inspiration and role model who told us no matter what the rest of the world or galaxy says, we belong. Her legacy is found in all the scientists, activists, artists, authors and innovators who are following a trail that she bravely blazed for us.
Thank you, and rest easy.