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Star Trek's Nyota Uhura

First Afro-American female in Non-menial Role on US TV

In Star Trek's original series, which first aired on US television on 8th September 1966, and which, as it so memorably promised, boldly went where no television drama had been before, Nyota Uhura was from the start one of the central characters. Star Trek was one of the first TV shows which was thought-provoking, as well as entertaining, and escapist. It translated topical social issues into an outer-space context, enabling us to see them from a different perspective. Star Trek certainly explored big ideas, about space, the universe, society and science. Star Trek is set in a future time when humans have overcome racism and sexism in order to explore space together. It is earnest, inspirational, and aspirational and has made many people into fans of science fiction, and inspired some to become astronauts or be otherwise involved in making space flight possible. Mae Jemison (born 1956) became the first Afro-American female to fly in space, when she orbited the earth on the Space Shuttle Endeavour in September 1992. She has said that when she watched the Original Series of Star Trek, she felt affirmed by the diversity of characters, and Gary Whittle, the screenwriter for After Earth, has written: "I'm a sci-fi nerd...I grew up watching Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica. This is the kind of stuff I've always wanted to do."

Nichelle Nichols portrayed Uhura until the 6th Star Trek film. Since 2009, a younger Uhura has been played by actress Zoe Saldana. Nichelle Nichols will celebrate her 85th birthday, God willing, this December 28th, whilst Zoe Saldana was born in 1978, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants to the US. She has played Uhura in Star Trek, Star Trek into Darkness, and Star Trek Beyond. She also played Neytiri in 2009's Avatar, the highest grossing film ever.

The Swahili word Uhuru means "freedom" and this word was adapted by Gene Roddenberry into Uhura, whilst the original meaning of Nyota is "star." For years, Uhura's first name was not known, and some speculated, wrongly, that it was Samara or Penda. Roddenberry originally intended to name the character "Sulu" but that idea was dropped, as some thought it was too reminiscent of "zulu." Uhura speaks Swahili, and is proud of her African roots and heritage. In her personal living quarters is a zebra-skin bedspread, as well as some African sculptures and masks, and panels displaying African images. The name Uhura was inspired by Robert Ruark's book "Uhuru," and it was not until Spock calls her Nyota in the 2009 film, that her true first name became known to all. Uhura is one of the first depictions of a character of African descent in a non-menial role on American television. Whoopi Goldberg has spoken of her delight at seeing a black woman on TV, who wasn't a maid! On the Starship Enterprise, Uhura is a translator, with an interest in Klingon and other alien languages, and she serves as chief communications officer. She is expert in linguistics, philology, and cryptography. 

Nichelle Nichols planned to leave the series after the first series, in 1967, but remarkably it was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, no less, who persuaded her to stay! He told her he was a great fan of the show, and said that Uhura signified a future of greater racial harmony and cooperation. This persuaded her to stay, and we can all be thankful that she did! 

Uhura is from the United States of Africa and was born on 19th January 2233, a Capricorn like her true friend, Spock! She first appears in "The Man Trap," joining the Enterprise as a lieutenant, and is shown to be a capable bridge officer, well able to take over the running of the navigation and science stations when necessary. Uhura is a talented singer, and sometimes Spock accompanies her on the Vulcan lyre. She is promoted to lieutenant commander in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and to full commander in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. When the Enterprise is destroyed, Uhura and her crewmates travel to Earth aboard a stolen Klingon spaceship. This is shown in Star Trek IV and they travel to the 20th Century, going to the coast of California in an attempt to rescue a pair of humpbacked whales. They plan to repopulate earth with the species, which is, like so many others now, threatened with extinction. 

Uhura and Kirk engaged in the first interracial kiss on television, which created a stir in some quarters! Uhura joined the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the year 2266, on our calendars, and in the following year she took charge of the science station when Spock and others were on board the shuttlecraft "Galileo" which crashed on a planet's surface. It was Uhura who discovered that the planet upon which the shuttlecraft had crash-landed was Taurus II, and thankfully Spock and his four crewmates were saved. In 2270 Uhura is again in charge of the bridge when the Enterprise has lost contact with Kirk and Spock, who are exploring the surface of Delta Theta III.

In all, Uhura is a role-model for many, especially for young women who would like a career in science or technology, but also for all those who simply wish to live on a planet where men and women gladly recognise and affirm each other's equal dignity and significance. Thank you to Nichelle Nichols, and Zoe Saldana, for portraying her so beautifully and well.

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