Black History Month – Star Trek

Black History Month – Star Trek

Jim here–this is (mostly) from my personal blog here.  I’m using it for the Foundation’s blog with some modification.  Science-fiction has always been a way to explore ideas that would be unacceptable if used in a real-world discussion.  Good writing stimulates discussion.  That’s important for education.  Teachers can use these allegories to relate to issues students face in real life.   Just as important–change has to start somewhere.  There are always firsts and then down the road people wonder “Why did anyone think “X” shouldn’t be permitted?” because it’s all accepted. ***

Today in our Wayback Machine, we head to the middle of the 20th century when media had a lot of rules about what you could/couldn’t show on TV.  I mean, Elvis was only shown from the chest up because his pelvis was too sexual; it was against the rules to say Lucy was pregnant on “I Love Lucy”–even though she was *bursting* with being pregnant.  Maryanne on “Gilligan’s Island” and Jeannie on “I Dream of Jeannie” weren’t permitted to show a belly-button because that would be offensive.  Think that’s bad–it gets sillier.

Toilets aren’t seen on television until the 1970s (the first flush, I think, was on “Married with Children” in 1987).  Married couples aren’t shown sharing a bed until the 1970s as well.  They always have separate beds or even separate rooms…and yet, somehow women kept winding up ‘with child’ or ‘in a family way’ (since we can use the p-word).  Go figure.

You get the idea about censorship and the worry of corporations, afraid of offending portions of their viewing audience; this was an era of three networks plus the Public Broadcasting System.  There was no cable superstations or even many independent local channels.

Back in 1968, a radical TV show was in its final season.  That was “Star Trek.”  Really a Western transposed into outer space, the show dealt with a ton of social issues and current events (like Vietnam, Nazi war criminals on the run, and even prison reform) in allegories.  From the start , it pushed boundaries.  The bridge crew wasn’t just white men.  You had an alien (Spock), an Asian (Mr. Sulu), a Russian (Chekov), as well as Lt. Uhura, a black woman who was one of the ship’s senior officers.  Diversity on American TV in 1966?? Holy cow–that alone pushed the envelope.

1968 was “Star Trek”‘s last season.  The network didn’t like the ratings and the scripts of many episodes were poor (check out The Omega Glory with the Yangs and Kohms on the parallel Earth for one example), but one of those horrible episodes contains a key moment in American TV history as a force for good social change.

The episode was Plato’s Stepchildren.  Godlike aliens capture and toy with the crew.  There are two controversial scenes .  The first was Spock and Captain Kirk  dancing together–two men dancing together…*gasp* that’s outrageous and could promote homosexual behavior.  The other–Kirk and Lt. Uhura kiss.  For the first time, in November 1968, someone white and someone black were permitted to kiss on television. NOTE: If you teach, think about asking your students to guess when a first kiss between people of different skin colors took place on TV. I think the guesses would be “Fascinating”…which you probably read hearing the voice of Leonard Nimoy.

Doesn’t that sound silly–that the skin color of people kissing is controversial?  Initially it was supposed to be Spock, so that there would be fewer objections–yes, the Spock actor was white, but his character was ‘green’, so that’d be okay–because…yeah….   Instead, sensing the importance of what they were doing, William Shatner insisted it be his character, Captain Kirk, who kissed Uhura.  That sealed his place in history–and ramped up the meaning of the moment  There could be no rationalizing around it–this was an interracial kiss, white man, black woman.

Some objected, many were offended, but that kiss was a watershed moment.  By the 1970s, it permitted the envelope to be pushed further.  On “The Jeffersons”, Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker played the title characters’ married neighbors–a white man lovingly married to a black woman.  You get “Different Strokes” with a widowed white man adopting two young black boys and treating them directly and equally with his biological daughter.

We’re in the 2020s–and all of these situations seem so…dull and normal.  Black movie stars?  Duh.  TV stars?  Of course.  For a majority of people, skin color  is an irrelevant concern now (sadly for a still-sizeable minority it does matter).

Still, the effect of Uhura went further–though this is a tangent, not where I intended for this article to go.  The actor who portrayed her, Nichelle Nichols, went on to work with NASA to recruit people other than white men to be astronauts.  One of those recruits was Sally Ride, the first American woman in space.  Another was Guion Bluford–the first black astronaut who was inspired to apply for the astronaut program because of Uhura on “Star Trek”.  Others included:

  • Drs. Judith Resnik and Ron McNair, both killed in the Challenger explosion
  • Lori Garver who became a senior NASA administrator
  • General Charles Bolden, USMC.

Everyone has heard of Sally Ride.  Why don’t we hear about Bluford?  (Dude is on almost every list of the 100 greatest blacks in American frickin’ history…and I’d bet until you read this, you never heard of him…and until I sat to write this…me either.)

All of this because of her role as Uhura and breaking barriers–a black woman in charge, a black woman who kissed a white man.