A True Pioneer: Nichelle Nichols (1932-2022) | Tributes

Dr. King went on and on about how much he loved the show, which gave Nichols the confidence to tell him she had quit. “I said I was leaving ‘Star Trek’ and he said ‘you cannot!’” she told the Archive of American Television. “And I felt like that little boy [Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes] ‘whatchu talkin’ bout, Dr. King?! … he said ‘for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful…[Black] people who can go into space!’” Lt. Uhura wasn’t technically written as a Black role nor a female one, so she could easily be replaced by anything, even an alien. She had to stay on to ensure Black history was made. “And I was angry,” Nichols said. “Why me?”

Just that story alone highlights the importance of Nichols being in the right place at the right time when Gene Roddenberry decided to bring a multicultural future to NBC in 1966. In addition to inspiring a generation to dream of boldly going where no man has gone before, she worked with NASA to make it possible for several. Her volunteer work with the organization helped recruit Black and female future astronauts, including Dr. Sally Ride and Challenger astronauts Dr. Judith Resnick and Dr. Ronald McNair, the last of whom my high school alma mater in Jersey City was renamed for a few years after I’d graduated. Though she didn’t get to go into space herself, Nichols rode in the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Boeing 747SP, a plane with a telescope that flies 41,000 feet above the Earth to observe the stars and planets.

As someone who dreamt of being an astronaut and who loves all things NASA, these fictional and real-life achievements would be more than enough to endear Nichols to me. But here’s a dirty little secret that will reveal the primary reason she has my eternal devotion: Lt. Uhura wasn’t the first time I’d seen Nichelle Nichols. Before I ever laid eyes on “Star Trek,” I went to see “Truck Turner” at the PIX theater in my hometown.

“Truck Turner” was a 1974 Blaxploitation movie starring Isaac Hayes as the titular skip tracer and Yaphet Kotto as his primary nemesis. It was directed by Jonathan Kaplan and edited by future Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn. Kotto and Hayes are big, intimidating men, but their characters are no match for Nichelle Nichols’ Dorinda. Even Kaplan’s camera is afraid to get too close to her lest she yank it off the crane and throw it! Dorinda runs a stable of sex workers for her main squeeze, Gator, the pimp Truck Turner’s been hired to catch for jumping bail.

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