“Science is not a boy’s game; it’s not a girl’s game. It’s everyone’s game. It’s about where we are and where we are going.” Some actors seem to transcend moments. While their colleagues experience the present, having their adoring fans clamor for more and move on to the next, others find themselves in moments that live forever, inspiring generations of people. Nichelle Nichols is one of these actors. While people may not have foreseen the impact her portrayal of Nyota Uhura would have on the world, women everywhere, especially black women, have looked back on her as an inspiration to rise and take the spaces they deserve in the arts. Now, the Star Trek world has received devastating news surrounding their trailblazer.
According to her Facebook page, and a post by her son, Nichelle Nichols passed away on Saturday night due to natural causes. She was 89. Her son, Kyle Johnson, confirmed the news with the post and continued to ask for her fans to give the family time to grieve and process the news. He also indicated they would reserve her funeral service for her closest friends and family. He gave no date for the service in the post. Nichols’ time in front of the camera and her fans has slowed in the last four years due to a dementia diagnosis in 2018 and her involvement in a conservatorship battle. Her last appearance came in the form of a three-day farewell at a Comic-Con event last year.
Nyota Uhura served as the communications officer under both Captains Christopher Pike and James T. Kirk. She is credited by Whoopi Goldberg as an inspiration when she saw her on screen for the first time. Goldberg said of seeing Nichelle Nichols that she told her mother there was a black woman on TV who wasn’t playing a maid. Goldberg would eventually go on to appear in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Other black actors in the Star Trek franchise, such as LaVar Burton, also credit her as an inspiration. One of the most notable moments of her career was sharing the first interracial kiss on American television when she locked lips with William Shatner. She reportedly resigned from Star Trek after the first season due to racist harassment when she discovered the studio was hiding her fan mail. She stated she rescinded the resignation when Dr. Martin Luther King reminded her of the importance.
Nichelle Nichols didn’t limit inspiring women to her portrayal on Star Trek. NASA recruited her in 1977 to act as a recruiter for the space program. She began making training videos and recruitment videos targeted at women and other minorities to pave a path for them to become astronauts. According to her, within her first six months of the job, applications jumped from less than 100 to nearly 1700, primarily minority groups. She received the honor of NASA’s Woman of the Year in 1979 for her work and inspired many of the women in the program today.
When looking back at the series and films that framed a generation’s imagination, Star Trek will always be at the top of that list. When looking back at actors that framed a generation’s spirit, Nichelle Nichols will always be at the top of that list. While the world mourns the loss of her inspiration, we celebrate the legacy she leaves behind.