For black science fiction fans, Nichelle Nichols represents a very distinct barrier broken. With her presence on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, she showed me and other little black girls like me that we, too, could participate in these spaces previously only occupied by people who don’t look like us.
The first time I saw Nichelle Nichols on television, I remember being relieved, even as a child watching the original Star Trek series, that there was a black woman in space. “Thanks goodness,” I told my white mother. “I might want to be an astronaut or science officer one day, and if she can, so can I.”
Years later, when I decided that the math requirements of a NASA employee might hinder my becoming a space explorer, I held with me the knowledge that, if not me, perhaps another sister some day; perhaps my daughter, my cousin, my friend.
Whether it be on screen or off of it, Ms. Nichols captivates audiences with her poise and strength, a constant presence in the science fiction genre for the last fifty years. This sci-fi queen has been a regular on the convention circuit for years, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans on the exhibition floor. I’ve spotted her more than once–smiling, signing old photos and chatting with fans. At WonderCon 2018, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Nichols for a short time to discuss her newest project, Noah’s Room. The concept focuses on an African American family who takes in a white youth that has been abused by the foster care system, changes his life through love, redemption and forgiveness, a second chance on life.
Ms. Nichols wrote the story based on true events. “It’s so true, people say it can’t be true,” she told me as we sat at the Hollywood Sci-Fi Museum booth on Saturday afternoon at WonderCon. “I was never going to put it out and I was telling some friends of mine what it was that I was doing and what it was that I had going on and they got so excited about it and that’s how it got started.”
Currently, Noah’s Room is going through a bidding war with a number of companies interested in green-lighting the bold hour-long tv series, but when it came down to it, Ms. Nichols actually didn’t want to talk about the project, probably to the chagrin of her manager who emailed to specifically remind me not to fangirl over Star Trek too much and to focus on the current project. When I asked if she could tell me anymore about the series, she told me no, blatant and sure, in the way that only those who have been around can do. As our interview went on, I sat and watched as black women and men came up to speak with Ms. Nichols. I smiled at each one, excited to see the impact that this woman has had on so many people of color in the geek community. For black folks, women especially, Ms. Nichols symbolizes our presence in nerd culture. Even as we remain on the sidelines while film after film and series after series is made with cookie cutter casts and regurgitated plotlines, black geeks have had vibrant and powerful representation in Ms. Nichols for half a century. That commitment to art and to the genre of sci-fi is not to be minimalized or forgotten, even as Ms. Nichols winds down her convention appearances and inevitably gets older and less visible.
At the end of our time together, after I turned the recorder off, and got a picture, I gave myself a moment to fangirl over one of my very first geek icons. “My mother called me only a few minutes before I sat down with you,” I told Ms. Nichols. “She was so excited for this interview and knew how nervous I was,” I hesitated for a moment then added in a rush of breath, “you’ve done so much and are such an inspiration for young black women in this genre and I just wanted to thank you for all your hard work and everything you do.”
“Oh, that’s sweet,” she told me, a soft smile on her face. “Thank you, honey.”
No, ma’am. Thank you.