More On Nichelle Nichols: Regarding Althouse’s Misguided Snark

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.

19 thoughts on “More On Nichelle Nichols: Regarding Althouse’s Misguided Snark

  1. 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.

    Until the present day, when such changes are happening at a speed so break-neck that nobody has time to assimilate them. The result is an angry and divided populace, moving ever closer to sectarian violence and even revolution.

    If Ann had actually learned anything from the 1960’s, she would’ve figured out that incremental, gradually assimilated change may not please everybody and may not be the fairest of all, but it has the tremendous advantage of durability and broad social acceptance. In my view, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Network shows of the time apparently thought so, too.

  2. Progressive presentists have only the past to libel and slander because the present day developments in culture and politics and human development magnify their fraudulent pronouncements because we are getting better and better. Though, somewhat tiresome contemporary debates on inclusivity and exclusivity represent thought and thought represents acknowledgment even if the topic is stupid. Where is Socrates when we need him?

    Nichols and Carroll and Fisher were talented women who had to work. Performers are their own self contained corporations so these actresses were running businesses while entertaining us. They owned themselves and used that ownership of themselves to parlay (limited according to some) their renown into a lifelong earning opportunity. That is free enterprise…pardon the pun please.

    As for mid 20th century television, that is how I learned to be an American and to fit in with the prevailing culture and customs. Why shouldn’t Julia have lived in a lovely apartment with a sweet and well behaved little boy? Everyone female was wearing short skirts and the jobs were repetitive. How is Lt. Uhura diminished when she is a military officer travelling the galaxies and making contact with whoever answers her? Why shouldn’t Mannix have had competent Peggy Fair running his office? Did working for a man diminish Peggy Fair?

    Progressive totalitarianism must take control of the past in order to own the future. Thus that has always been. The new and improved future is a threat to progressives so it must defame history and unbalance intellectual integrity and our move into the future. We must all believe what we see with our own eyes and not what anyone else tells us we are seeing.

    • As for mid 20th century television, that is how I learned to be an American and to fit in with the prevailing culture and customs.

      Mid 20th century television didn’t reflect the culture and customs. It present a view of what the people in charge of broadcast television and the people who granted them licenses wanted to portray. That’s why you didn’t see many Black people, that’s why Lucy and Ricky had twin beds, that’s why Wally said gosh and darn, why you didn’t see people sent to the back of the bus or have cops sic dogs on them for protesting, why Andy lecutred Opie and didn’t just take a belt to him, why anti-war protesters were shown as either drug addicts or naive children trying to undermine the good order of society (even on Star Trek.)

      Characters need to believe and behave and speak in a way that holds attention, moves the story along and fits the time frame of the format. They use tropes and shorthand and fit narrative arcs. The real world was never like Leave it to Beaver, or Barney Miller or even The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.

      • “The Way to Eden” sucked between the awful hippie stereotypes and uncompelling musical score. Then again, I’d probably qualify as a Herbert.

      • I’d say old time TV used to be aspirational. It’s not anymore. It’s least common denominator and awfulness. I’d take “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver” over “Married with Children” or “The Roseanne Barr Show” any time. Of course, now, nuclear families are deemed radioactive. Good job, Hollywood.

        • Nuclear families are deemed radioactive… unless they are interracial with the wise black dad and the subservient white mom.
          Otherwise they wouldnt be on every commercial and every network.
          (I still want to meet the black family heading into the forest in their Subaru)

        • Criminal Minds International tried to go that route, with at least two of the team happily married and with normal, even large families, and One Chicago has a few happily married types sprinkled among the swinging singles and tortured divorced folks. The FBI universe has not a single conventional couple (there is one married lesbian couple). You’d think the scene of an agent who’s a conventional dad looking through the door of his daughter’s bedroom after getting home late from being on a case before lying down next to his wife of 12 years was some impossibility. Heaven forbid some agent be a Jack Ryan type who loves family and country, and heaven forbid even more that he take on a “woke” colleague and say “are you seriously going to make a hero out of a lifelong petty thug?”

      • This response seems as naively simplistic as what you’re complaining about.

        I’d wager that a large majority of parents didn’t take a belt to their children, that a large majority of children didn’t swear or fight all the time, and that a majority of people were against sending black people to the back of the bus.

        You’re taking the very worst of society and saying that is how society was. No different from shows only showing the good of society, except I’d argue it’s worse since people model what they see.

  3. They should have freed their slaves, or never practiced slavery at all.

    You might be able to claim prevailing culture prevented them from believing overt racism was wrong but there was an abolition movement at the nation’s founding and not merely a handful of radicals. You might accept that Aristotle–who believed everyone had a correct place–owned slaves and knew no better; there’s no way you can claim that Washington and Jefferson didn’t know chattel slavery was evil.

    It is fair and right and righteous to criticize any American’s choice to own slaves whatever their other achievements.

    • It really isn’t, VG. The vast majority of even the most educated Europeans believed that blacks were a sub-human species, and slavery was a given in most civilizations. No current day critic can fairly judge or even understand the cultural and values framework of 18th century slavery. Criticizing it as “racism” now is like pronouncing those who believed in spontaneous generation or a flat earth morons. The same is true of attitudes toward women. That women were inferior and morally obligated to be man-servants and baby-machines was considered the dictate of nature. That there were far-sighted visionaries on the matter, like John Adams, doesn’t change the fact that the culture blocked clarity and perception for most people…as it usually does.

      • And yet the abolition movement was not insignificant. It’s like saying that those opposed to marriage equity 15 years ago were just incapable of understanding the counter arguments.

        However they rationalized it, they knew, they couldn’t not know. They weren’t Aristotle, the lord made George, elector of Hanover, prince to reign over them, they did not accept their place. Without a divinely appointed role you cannot justify owning humans as anything but an offence against all humanity. And there were any number of abolitionists to tell them that it degrades the owned and diminishes the owner to participate in such.

        And you diminish them further by taking away their responsibility for their own choices.

        • And how in 30 years, no one will believe that people argued to allow for legal abortions? They had to have known…

          • Which is worse: slavery or murdering 62million babies by a very broad cross section of educated people?
            And still going.

            Slavers tried to keep their slaves from learning how to read.
            I get that ignorant people are easier to manage but still, doesn’t that undermine the argument they were intellectually inferior?
            Dangerous to have too many Frederick Douglass’ running around.

        • My understanding is that even among abolitionists, the idea that blacks could be COMPLETE equals with was still a radical notion. Even Abraham Lincoln said he thought blacks were not as intelligent as whites. A good portion of the slavery debate was what to DO with slaves if and when they were to be freed? Send them back to Africa-precisely where and how? Turn them loose on the frontier-They would be competing with settlers and natives for land. Thomas Jefferson referred to slavery as having a wolf by the ear, “can neither hold him, nor let him go.”

          Did Jefferson and others founders profit off of slavery when they knew it was wrong?
          Should they have come up with a solution to end slavery and been willing to swallow some costs to get it done?
          Maybe. Perhaps they could’ve found a bloodless way to do it, or perhaps the Civil War would’ve started earlier.
          Should we ignore the slaveholder aspect of their lives?
          Does this erase their accomplishments as founders of the nation?
          Should we metaphorically beat their corpses for failing to end slavery in their lifetimes?
          IMHO, no.

  4. Jack,

    Random Fact: Her younger brother, Thomas, was one of the 32 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult that committed suicide in 1997. Many members of the group loved the series and he used to identify himself as a relative in promotional materials released during that time.

  5. The thing about the past is that it is past. The past serves only two purposes. One role is to bring pleasure in the present as you remember past enjoyable episodes of your life. The second is as a guide toward future action. No matter how hard you try, the past cannot be changed or undone. Althouse’s and Valkygrrl’s protestations serve no purpose. Slavery has been abolished for a few years now and all slaves and slaveholders are dead. The original producers of Star Trek are dead or no longer in business. There are no living aggrieved parties nor remedies available to them if they were alive.

    Whining about the past as opposed to advocating for something in the future is lazy and a waste of time. Only complaining about the past is as productive as agitating a pot of excrement. While I concede there are those among us that take pleasure in stinking up the place, I submit they do nothing to advance the human condition.

    I also concede there are some who arrogantly consider themselves to be highly perspicacious. They believe they have the capacity to enter the minds of others and clearly know their thoughts and motivations. These individuals also tend to engage in banter for banter’s sake. Likewise, these individuals in their pursuit of self-gratification also do little to advance the human condition.

    Complaining without prescriptions for future actions is whining and a waste of time as is bantering with them unless you do it for sport. The most effective way to deal with time wasters in your life is to not waste time with them.

  6. Has anyone mentioned Truck Turner? She was fabulous in that film. I watch that movie every year on my birthday (and 2 nights ago). All I can say is:
    “This ain’t Sears and Roebuck nigguh.”

    Man she was bad ass in that movie.

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