In the introduction to this post, Ethics Alarms mentioned the passing of “Star Trek” icon Nichelle Nichols, whose obituaries prominently noted her participation in TV’s first inter-racial kiss. I wrote in part,
“She was more model than actress, and as her role developed, much to her disappointment, the part of “Uhura” became little more than set dressing. But she played one of the first black female characters on TV to have a non-subservient role, indeed Uhura was fourth in the “Enterprise” chain of command…. In her autobiography, Nichols wrote that Martin Luther King told her that she was advancing civil rights objectives, and convinced her not to quit when William Shatner was getting too obnoxious” …
But Ann Althouse complained on her blog yesterday,
They got away with putting a beautiful woman in a minidress in the background of as many shots as possible, but what did she do other than provide eye candy for the little boys and little men who watched? She was the secretary, seated at the switchboard, receiving calls.
Come on. The sexual politics was ridiculous, and blackness was the device to make it seem progressive, or at least to shut up the critics.
And I mean no disrespect to Ms. Nichols or to any other black actor who accepted a role constrained by stereotypes. There should have been more offers. There should have been more roles.
Most of Ann’s commenters are conservative while she is a generally fair and open-minded liberal. Here she betrays a weakness of her breed. (Ann also is remarkably weak on matters involving pop culture, except for a few disjointed topics, like Bob Dylan, so in analyzing “Star Trek” she is out of her depth.)
Nichols would not have been cast in a more demanding role, nor was she capable of filling one. She was a dancer and a singer with almost no acting experience.It was not prejudice or bad luck that resulted in her having almost no career that did not involve playing Uhura. More importantly, no black actresses were getting substantive roles on TV in 1966, when “Star Trek” debuted; black women weren’t supposed to be attractive to white men. Much of America was still deep in Jim Crow: a network would be giving up crucial ratings points by challenging cultural norms too directly on any series, so none did.
In 1965, the year before “Star Trek” began, “I Spy” had shocked the U.S. with an African-American series lead in the person of Bill Cosby. But Cosby was already a popular and familiar comedian on variety shows and records. He never ventured into racial topics in those days, and was seen as “safe.” The same year, 1968, that Nichols and William Shatner had their now-famous kiss, “Julia” debuted, a bland sitcom starring Broadway star Diahann Carroll in which she played a single mother who worked as a nurse in an urban hospital. (Ann would doubtless complain that she “should” have played a doctor. A black female doctor in 1966? That would have had to be on a since fiction show.) “Julia” was the first non-variety series with a black woman in the lead, but as ground-breaking goes, it was pretty tepid. Indeed, Julia lived in a nicely-appointed apartment and, as black critics at the time pointed out, seemed white in everything but her skin shade.
However, the series was progress, and like Nichol’s eye-candy communications officer, was just about as radical as white audiences of the period were ready to accept. Althouse’s hindsight bias is annoyingly characteristic of today’s self-righteous progressivism. Indeed, it is the same attitude that has the legacies of the slave-owning founders being challenged and their statues and memorials at risk. They should have freed their slaves, or never practiced slavery at all. The United States should have allowed black Americans to vote from the beginning; it should have avoided racial discrimination; baseball should have allowed black players before 1947; there should have been more black members of Congress, mayors and governors…Allowing flagrant presentism to infect our judgment of past generations generates hate, contempt and ignorance.
For these things couldn’t happen until slow, incremental changes in attitudes, ethical standards and the culture occurred, and these take place, must take place, slowly. Althouse’s certitude, in the arrogant belief that what is obvious to her with the advantage of many years of experience, new information, and perspective that the societies of 1966, or 1950, 1938, 1920, 1866 or 1776 did not have, should have been obvious then is why we are nurturing generations who have been taught to think that the Americans who brought this nation all this way were stupid and evil.