If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a big Star Trek fan. I mean, after all, I have a picture of the U.S.S. Enterprise on my blog for goodness sake. So, imagine my surprise and nerd enthusiasm when I discovered in February that the lovely Nichelle Nichols would be at the Creation Entertainment’s Star Trek convention in Cherry Hill, NJ. Just a hop, skip, and jump from Philadelphia.
I needed to make this happen. Now, I have attended a Star Trek convention before. In fact, it was Creation Entertainment’s last Star Trek convention back in 2013 in celebration of the 20th anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). I had to go because it was DS9 that introduced me to Star Trek and the whole science fiction genre when I was a wee child of nine. While there, I got to see Michael Dorn (he and I made eye contact and exchanged hellos in passing on the convention floor), Nana Visitor, and Avery Brooks who lives up to his post-Star Trek reputation of being a little on the eccentric side.
But, I digress.
By the time I found out about Nichelle Nichols’ appearance at the convention, I was (and am) still immersed in my Star Trek project. Although I call myself a Trekkie, I haven’t seen all of Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) or the subsequent movies or Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). I know! Bad Trekkie over here. Through my watching of TOS, I fell more and more in love with the original cast, especially communications officer Lieutenant Uhura. I found when watching episodes in which she was featured, I naturally gravitated toward her.
With all of this in mind, I didn’t hesitate to fork over the extra cash to have a photo taken with her. Ultimately,it wasn’t until the day and the moments leading up to meeting her, I realized how important this moment was. But, I’ll get there in just a minute.
The convention, this time around, was an entirely different experience for me. The first time I was amazed and shocked by the depth of people’s love for Star Trek from their knowledge during the trivia contest down to the intricately detailed costumes. I was gobsmacked. This time, however, there was the looming knowledge that I would be seeing Nichelle Nichols, a woman I had admired from afar over the past year.
When the moment for her Q&A happened, she was met with a standing ovation and thunderous applause, myself included. I was astounded by how well she had aged (she is 80 years old after all). In an hour’s time, she regaled fans with stories: from her Star Trek audition, to the infamous kiss with William Shatner, to her meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and even meeting Zoe Saldana who would reprise her role as Uhura in the J.J. Abrams’ reboot.
The things that left the biggest impression on me are this. First, in being “the first” African American and a woman on a science fiction show set in the distant future carried a tremendous weight. A weight that she had not anticipated and, at times, was a lot to carry. But, that she strongly believed a first that would have happened, that would have needed to happen. She just happen to be “the one” it happened to. Secondly, the importance of nurturing our children to push past society’s barriers and reach for the impossible. That in being the first she was inspiring a generation of children that they too could do whatever they set their minds to. Thirdly, in the years following Star Trek, she realized that she took part in an image of the future that wasn’t quite a reality in the present. That’s what led her to being a spokesperson for NASA to recruit women and minorities. A role she takes very seriously. She didn’t want to be just a temporary face for a cause only to move on to the next project.
I found in those moments listening to her speak that I started to tear up. At first I didn’t know why her words had such an effect on me. The first person that came to mind was my mother. It reminded me of a conversation I had with my her when I was a child. It was my mother who sat me down in front of the television to watch DS9. She told me of what it was like to watch an episode, here and there, of the Original Series when she was younger. In 1966, when TOS first aired, my mother was about 18-19 years old. She described to me what it was like to see Uhura on screen.
In that moment, in the auditorium listening to Nichelle Nichols, it finally dawned on me: my mother was one of the millions of kids/teenagers inspired by her role. My mother saw a strong, smart black woman in space on a starship holding her own with all the testosterone on the bridge. And here she was some 20-odd years later sitting her daughter down to watch DS9 starring Captain Benjamin Sisko, an African American captain in charge of a space station. I didn’t realize until that moment that my mother was passing along that inspiration. Her subtle way of saying “Ashley, you can reach for the stars. Reach as far as you think you can go and then push a little farther. It’s possible.”
I realized that in seeing Nichelle Nichols, meeting her, and getting my picture taken with her, I was doing it for my mother as well as myself. A way of saying to my mother who is no longer with me that “I did it, momma. I reached for it. I’m still reaching for it.” I’ve done amazing things and I’ve visited extraordinary places. I face each new challenge in the spirit of adventure because it is possible.
How could I convey all of this to a woman who inspired not only my mother but me too? The answer is I couldn’t. I found I didn’t have the words. I was, believe it or not, stunned into silence in her presence. I smiled, I was polite and took my picture. And as I walked away to make room for the next person in line, she called me back. With a smile she said, let’s take another one. I want to give you my best.
In that moment, that perfectly summed up Nichelle Nichols to me. She is a woman who gives everything her all. To give each person and each experience her best.
Thank you Ms. Nichols, you’ve done just that and then some.