I was talking Star Trek autographs recently with my friend Robert J. Sawyer. (Name drop? You bet). Rob is a lifelong original-series fan and has an extensive Star Trek collection, but he’s never collected autographs. He is an accomplished novelist and he follows the standard practice of his profession: you sign autographs freely for people who value your work, although he understands why many celebrities do charge.
I didn’t collect autographs early on. Paying someone for a signature seemed a waste of my meagre funds. But I watched the guests at a couple of conventions and decided those dollars weren’t really buying the signature. Instead, the money bought a brief meeting with someone who was there, on the set during those few years in the ’60s. The autograph you take home is a reminder of that meeting.
That conversation with Rob got me thinking about my Ebony magazine from January of 1967, because of the pleasant chat I had with Nichelle Nichols as she signed it.
Ebony debuted in 1945, and it was an important expression of the black experience in America. That meant Nichols was thrilled to be the cover story in 1967 but, for today’s readers, the word choices and focus are outdated. For example:
The voice belongs to pretty Los Angeles actress Nichelle Nichols — or, as she is known aboard the Enterprise on the new Thursday night NBC-TV color series Star Trek, Lieutenant Uhura and, according to present-day Earth records, the first Negro astronaut, a triumph of modern-day TV over modern-day NASA.
It also tells us: “The communication officer she portrays was, in the pilot film, played by a man. Anticipating the future, however, planners decided to give the role to a woman, and a Negro at that.” And the article focuses far more on her beauty than her career or experience on the show. One photo caption reads: “In good shape for the part, the actress meets the dimensions both in talent and eye appeal.”
There is also this sentiment attributed to production executive Herb Solow: Nichols was a bonus for Star Trek as “we had hoped to (just) find a shapely broad.”
That language was, presumably, acceptable in the ’60s, and yet it actually underscores how important this role was for representation of women and black people. Uhura was an intelligent, capable professional. An oft-heard Whoopi Goldberg anecdote is testimony to this. On StarTrek.com, the multi-award-winning entertainer said:
When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.
That is a remarkable statement about the power of entertainment to inspire people and change society. It is also a sad reminder that only recently has that same validation begun to arrive on-screen for transgender and other marginalized peoples.
My two minutes with Nichelle
Nichelle Nichols ran a fund-raiser for the people of Japan in early 2011, following the earthquake and tsunami. She mailed out signed 8x10s in exchange for a donation of $50 or more to any legitimate related charity. That photo is currently hanging on my wall.
When I learned she would be at Fan Expo in Toronto that same summer, I debated getting her autograph again. I had her signature on other 8x10s, the cast photo from The Score Board, a restaurant menu purchased from TNG script coordinator Eric Stillwell (I’ll write about that one day) and a few other items.
But then I remembered her telling the crowd at a previous convention how important that Ebony magazine appearance had been. So I found a copy.
“Oh, Nichelle is going to love this,” her assistant said when I reached the front of the line at Fan Expo. And she did. Already smiling as she finished with the fan ahead of me, she beamed when she saw the Ebony.
My copy was in much better condition than the one she had, she said. So, of course, I immediately tried to give her mine. “I couldn’t take it,” she said, and I flashed on Uhura’s reply to Cyrano Jones’ offer of a free tribble: “Oh, I couldn’t…could I?”
But no, she refused, even though my offer was sincere. She signed the cover and told me that, even though her show business career started at 16, she had hardly any on-screen credits when the Ebony crew visited the set. That made the article and the photo shoot an overwhelming experience. She took a last look at herself on the cover and handed the magazine to me.
That autograph cost me $60 plus whatever I paid for the magazine, but it got me a few minutes with Nichelle Nichols. For me, just one of the thousands of fans who gather to see her every year, that was money well spent.
I have asked only one non-Trek person for an autograph: Robert J. Sawyer. I have his signature on two novels — Hominids and Calculating God — and on Boarding the Enterprise, a collection of Star Trek essays. More on that book later.