How often in history does one live to see the impact of their legacy? As human beings with lifetimes that stand as just a drop in the ocean of time, one rarely sees the fruits of their labor moving toward a better world for future generations. Nichelle Nichols, who died July 30 at the age of 89, serves as an incomparable exception to that notion.
Born Dec. 28, 1932, five years after the invention of the TV itself, Nichols was imbued with a love for the stage. She quickly racked up credits in a series of productions, but it was not until her iconic role as Lt. Nyota Uhura on Star Trek that her star truly ascended. Acting opportunities for Black women in the mid-20th century were often limited to maids, housekeepers, nannies and the enslaved. Lt. Uhura was simply unparalleled. Few today fully understand how groundbreaking her character was for its time. In pre-civil rights 1960s America, she was simply “the woman who answered the phone” on the USS Enterprise. But to those with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, she was the woman poised to become the author of a new chapter in the history of Black women in entertainment. Nichols once recounted Whoopi Goldberg telling her that on seeing Lt. Uhura onscreen for the first time, Goldberg ran through her house screaming, “Come quick! I just saw a Black woman on television, and she ain’t no maid!”
As a chief officer on the flagship of Starfleet, Lt. Uhura was the cool, unflappable presence who oversaw connections between species, playing it with a beauty and grace that made her stand out in an otherwise predominantly white and male world. In the ’60s, a Black woman in a position of power was an anomaly. Nichols’ portrayal of Nyota Uhura symbolized that Black people merited a position of importance, equality and respect in the future. Martin Luther King Jr. himself knew the importance of Lt. Uhura in representing the contributions of Black people; Nichols recalled the civil rights icon telling her, “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 and who can go to space, who are professors, lawyers.”
Lt. Uhura quenched the thirst of Black Americans everywhere who yearned for a future in which they could see themselves living, learning and loving in a world where the color of their skin didn’t limit their future — the world that freedom fighters were grappling for in real time. She opened the doors for Black women in entertainment to be viewed as powerful, capable, beautiful and intelligent. She collaborated on NASA initiatives to recruit more women and people of color. She went above and beyond, not only playing an important Black woman in the future of space programs, but also paving the way for other astronauts, doctors and scientists to excel in their respective fields, further cementing the role of women and people of color in the scientific advancement of the present day.
To say that I would not be playing Cadet Uhura if it weren’t for Nichols’ brilliant portrayal of the lieutenant my young cadet would become is, quite literally, the truth. It would fail to encapsulate how I probably wouldn’t have a career without Nichelle’s devotion to making room for strong-willed, intelligent, opinionated, graceful Black women in entertainment. I’ve been very lucky to have a career in playing confident activists, driven bookstore owners, and performers with a lust for all there is to offer in life and beyond, but I didn’t always believe that the life I live now was possible for someone like me. As a young Black girl, I grew up wishing on stars to be seen and accepted in my fullness — to be represented beyond the loveless best friend, comedic relief, or simply someone secondary to the life of my other, often whiter, peers. In my youth, I didn’t understand that I was craving the very representation that Nichols’ Lt. Uhura provided.
There is still a very long way to go in the representation of Black women and femmes on modern-day screens and stages, but Nichelle played a pivotal role in shifting our stories out of the lives of servants and sidekicks. She didn’t just teach us to reach for the lucky stars we wished upon — she brought those very stars to us, to our homes and the forefront of our minds. She made the wildest dreams of Black Americans, especially Black women, a reality. She taught us to dream big, wake up and follow those dreams with all our hearts because there is space for every different type of Black woman in the future. She taught us we all deserved to have our dreams come true because our dreams mattered, whether we were officers with a hand in protecting the future, space explorers, dancers who bring smiles to their spectators, or those of us with songs in our hearts we must set free. And she taught us we deserved representation and the preservation of our futures not only because of what we could do for the world, but simply because it was our God-given right.
I’ve embraced the role of Cadet Nyota Uhura, understanding and grateful for the role Nichols played in paving the way, and the work she did to establish a proud tradition of Black women carving out a place for others to fill. I never had the chance to meet her, but I feel her presence on set every day and see her legacy reflected in the lives she touched. On the TV screen and beyond, Nichols’ legacy lives on in all of us, myself included, who are grateful for and benefit from her perseverance, talent and grace.
Celia Rose Gooding stars as Nyota Uhura on Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.