Nichelle Nichols was my hero and a groundbreaking figure for Black women | Mikki Kendall

Nichelle Nichols was my hero and a groundbreaking figure for Black women

The death of the Star Trek actor leaves behind a hugely important legacy both on the small screen and in space

Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek Iii: The Search For Spock

Nichelle Nichols was my hero. Her death on Saturday at 89 was the passing of an icon who changed the world, and then kept fighting to make the future in our imaginations and in reality, a better brighter place for Black girls. When I was a kid around eight or nine, I would watch reruns of Star Trek and imagine myself as a space traveler. I even loved the fact that our first names were so similar. To me, she was the epitome of cool and I eagerly watched every moment she was on screen.

But because I was a kid, I didn’t really grasp how groundbreaking her work on the show was, as by the time I saw it, she was one of many images of Black womanhood. For me she was the one that resonated because I was fascinated by space, but of course I saw everyone from Diahann Carroll to Jackée Harry on screen. My world was one where images of Black womanhood were everywhere. It wasn’t that I thought racism didn’t exist, but the world in which Black women were only depicted as maids was never my reality. The media landscape that would have taught me that there was nothing for girls like me but servitude was changed by Nichelle Nichols.

When Nichols broke those barriers for Black women as Lt Uhura on the original Star Trek, I didn’t exist yet, and though I can study Jim Crow and can understand in the abstract how hard it was for her, I will never know the world that couldn’t stand the sight of her. But because of her, I feel no need to dim my light. And that’s true for so many Black women in America and around the world.

In conversation with the writer NK Jemisin after the news broke, we talked about how sad it is, and about Nichols’s impact on Jemisin’s career. “Without Nichelle Nichols I might have never been a writer, certainly not the kind of writer I am now,” she said. And that’s the thing about trailblazers like Nichols: they create an environment in which the path they opened is widened by those that they affected. Jemisin is widely regarded as one of the best writers of our generation, and though Nichols may not have realized what she wrought in the moment, I hope she knows in some beautiful afterlife that she helped make that possible.

Nichelle Nichols in 2017

We talked about her impact on us specifically, but we join Whoopi Goldberg, Mae Jemison and millions of others in grieving and gratitude. Though Nichols always gave credit to the Rev Martin Luther King Jr for talking her out of leaving the show, I am quietly convinced that Nichols stood her ground because she wasn’t going to let herself be forced out. She famously had no problem standing up to William Shatner on set when they butted heads. And in later years she advocated heavily for more diversity in the space program, telling ABC audio in a 2016 interview:

“Nasa recruited me, hired me to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. And until that time there were no people of color even considered,” she explains, adding with a laugh, “and after that, we were all over the place!

“I interviewed quite a few young women that were interested in that and simply didn’t think they had a chance. And one interview with me and they knew they did.”

For decades after Star Trek ended, Nichols was known for being encouraging, strong, and razor sharp. She was funny and sweet, and her work was always a presence in any conversation about science fiction or media representation. She was a cultural force that no one could ignore even when she wasn’t technically the focus in a conversation about the importance of inclusion and diversity. Her impact on others ran so deep that she was cited as an example by academics, activists and anyone who knew anything about the world as it had been and wanted to make the world the best it could be.

It’s one of the reasons fans struggled with the idea that she would not always be available to meet at conventions or that she might need more support and protection as she aged. When the conservatorship was announced, it was a blow to many, but given what her manager was allegedly able to do to her finances, I can’t help but wish we could have shown up for her the way she showed up for all of us. I can only hope that at the end she knew she was loved and revered.

Nichelle Nichols gave us the future – what we make of it is up to us. But we were lucky to have had her, to have been graced for as long as we were with her spirit and love. Perhaps the best way we can honor her is to strive as she did to make the world better, to remake our future into something utopian where the real Black Girl Magic is Black girls’ dreams coming true without having to battle so hard to be seen as human and worthy of respect and care. Nichelle Nichols was the hero that we needed, and hopefully we can all live up to the gifts she gave us.