The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nichelle Nichols made Black sci-fi fans believe they could reach for the stars

Nichelle Nichols in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

Nichelle Nichols boldly went where no Black woman had gone before — and gave sci-fi fans of color a bridge to the stars.

The actress, who died Saturday at the age of 89, gave us many layers of inspiration during her three immortalized seasons as Lt. Nyota Uhura on the original “Star Trek” television series, and later in movies inspired by it. She was the gorgeous one. She was the Black one. A translator. A marvel with technology. In the 1960s, when civil rights activism in the real world blanketed a divided country, she was a fictional, in-color look at the future Black people and so many other minorities in America strive for: an era where we can just be.

The light shone from Nichols’s star helped create a world where Black women have been everything from an actual first lady to a lightsaber-wielding henchwoman for Darth Vader in another sci-fi galaxy far, far away. Even Martin Luther King Jr. saw the power in Nichols’s position. When she was thinking about leaving “Star Trek” for other opportunities in show business, King pleaded with her to stay. Why? Because he knew the world needed to see Black people in roles of equal status before it could believe in such a thing. And Nichols, sitting confidently in her chair on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, basking in Black beauty Hollywood wasn’t yet truly ready to embrace, with an earpiece that made Bluetooth look cool before Bluetooth was even a thing, was an agent of that change, even if she didn’t realize it yet.

Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in the Star Trek franchise and helped pave the way for Black actresses in Hollywood, died on July 30. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Nichols’s Uhura spent a lot of time in her seat, sometimes not doing more than just taking calls. But that didn’t mean she was relegated to servitude — she was responsible for communications, as the expert on languages both alien and human. She could be supportive and authoritative, a team player and a problem solver. She got to sing every so often, plus she shared a strong chemistry on-screen with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and was a part of one of television’s first interracial kisses, with William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk.

Nichols is also responsible for multiple Black actresses energizing rebooted versions of Star Trek over the years. Zoe Saldana played Uhura in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie trilogy and Celia Rose Gooding now plays Uhura in “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” streaming on Paramount Plus. When Whoopi Goldberg first saw Nichols on television when she was a child, she screamed for her family to come gather around the screen, enamored by seeing a Black woman who wasn’t a maid. Goldberg set her sights on deep space at that exact moment and has since been an integral part of Star Trek lore as Guinan both on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Picard.”

Obituary: Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in Star Trek franchise, dies at 89

She also paved the path for Black actors: the futuristic eye visor-wearing LeVar Burton as Geordi La Forge, Michael Dorn under all that Klingon makeup as Worf, Tim Russ as a Black Vulcan on “Star Trek: Voyager.” All are Star Trek icons.

Then there are the Black captains: Avery Brooks’s Benjamin Sisko on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and, most recently, Sonequa Martin-Green’s Michael Burnham on “Star Trek: Discovery.” Nichols played someone on the bridge of a starship, but she probably never imagined, even in a world of make-believe, that Hollywood would place a Black woman like her in the chair reserved for Shatner. Martin-Green’s Burnham took command of the stars, saving the universe in the process, because of the possibility and believability that was forged the moment Nichols took her seat.

That was what Nichols gave so many: the ability to believe. Believing you deserve a seat. Believing the universe is everyone’s playground. And believing you have a right to be there. Where? Anywhere in the galaxy.

Within every Black sci-fi fan is a dreamer. It could be Ta-Nehisi Coates creating galactic adventures for the Black Panther for Marvel Comics, or N.K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell creating a Black female Green Lantern in the image of Janelle Monáe. The far-out dream for so many of us is to see ourselves in another world where our Blackness hasn’t been defined for us by outsiders. The dream is to believe that somewhere in the vastness of space, there exists someone like yourself, living up to a potential without limits.

Nichols made that kind of daydreaming seem within reach.