Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Top Black Characters in Science Fiction

At GeekDad, Lonnie Morgan presents a list of the ten strongest, most affirming black characters in science fiction. #8 on the list is Lt. Nyota Uhura from Star Trek. Although unimpressive by today's standards, a black female as something other than a maid was quite startling in 1966. Whoopi Goldberg credited Nichelle Nichols in the role of Uhura as encouraging her acting career.

Hmm. For that, perhaps we should condemn Uhura.

Anyway, even though producers diverted racist hate mail that was sent to her, Nichols considered leaving the show after the first season. It was only a personal appeal by Martin Luther King, Jr. that kept her on.



Bro. Dave said...

I'm not sure Lt. Uhura fits the category. Sure, the character had a leading role in a popular TV show in the late 60s, which was certainly progressive. She wasn't a maid, but wasn't she just a glorified telephone operator? (Isn't that all the "communications officer" was on the original series?)

John said...

She was a commissioned officer in a military organization. Uhura wasn't a particularly impressive one, probably because the concept of an assertive, strong female officer had been rejected by Paramount after the first pilot. But for the time, as both a female and a black character, Uhura was a step forward.

I read a line recently: "If your dog were to suddenly start speaking French, you would be loathe to correct his accent." Our racism-plagued society in the 60s needed time to improve. Uhura was one such small step forward.

Who knows? Maybe our grandchildren will consider us to be morally primitive because of values that we hold to be normal. Perhaps simply supporting legalized gay marriage, for example, might be considered insufficiently progressive.

Divers and Sundry said...

It was my understanding that the reason she wanted to quit the series was that the character wasn't a particularly active one - a telephone operator, as you say- but that King told her the mere presence of Uhuru as an officer on that bridge was worth staying in there. Now, if I could just reference my remembrance...

John said...

I'd say that King was right, more so for the female rather than black perspective.

In the original pilot, the first officer was a strong, assertive woman and half the crew was female. Alas, this was too much for the studio execs and Roddenberry had to compromise.

James R. Rummel said...

"Now, if I could just reference my remembrance..."

You will find it in Nichelle Nichols' autobiography.

"I'm not sure Lt. Uhura fits the category."

Something tells me that you aren't old enough to remember the 60's. (Lucky you!)

What John said holds true. "She was a commissioned officer in a military organization." It is not possible to over-emphasize just how strange and alien this was at the time.

James R. Rummel said...

Sorry for cluttering up the comment section, but a few of Ms. Nichols remarks concerning her influence as a black woman on TV are repeated in the following People magazine article.


She is rather full of herself, but having someone say that you are a civil rights icon will swell anyone's head.

Bro. Dave said...

Re-read my post. I acknowledged that it was progressive to have a black female as a lead character on a television show in the mid-60s. (And yes, Mr. Rummel, I remember the 60s.)

But even though she was "a commissioned officer in a military organization" doesn't mean the character, "Lt. Uhura", is one "of the ten strongest, most affirming black characters in science fiction".

I give Roddenberry credit for his progressive thought, and Nichols credit for sticking it out. But as even Nichols noted, the role of "Lt. Uhura" was not what I would call a strong woman. (They did give her more to do in the later movies, but in the original series she was mostly eye candy -- could that uniform have been any shorter!?!)

It seems to me "Lt. Uhura" made the list simply because she was a black woman on a sci-fi show and you needed one more to make a list of ten.

Johnny Cat said...

No Firefly? Well that's fine Happy Black History Month for ya!

John said...

It seems to me "Lt. Uhura" made the list simply because she was a black woman on a sci-fi show and you needed one more to make a list of ten.

Well, if they needed another black person, they could have added Teal'c from Stargate. If they needed a black woman, I would propose Zoe Washburne from Firefly.

I'm inclined to cut Roddenberry some slack. How likely is it that a show with an assertive, high-ranking black woman could have gotten on the air at the time?

John said...

Ah, JohnnyCat beat me two it by two minutes.