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On July 23 at San Diego Comic-Con, Dawnn Lewis shared an impromptu tribute to Nichelle Nichols, the trailblazing Star Trek star. Lewis, who voices Capt. Carol Freeman on Star Trek: Lower Decks, told 6,500 fans about looking up to Nichols as a child and later sharing a decades-long friendship. Days after that emotional Comic-Con moment, Nichols passed away on July 30 at the age of 89. Here, Lewis reflects on the iconic actor and activist, best known for playing Lt. Nyota Uhura.
Right after Comic-Con, I got home and I called Nichelle to tell her what happened. I said, “A bunch of people are probably going to call you to tell you that I lost it.” We talked for 45 minutes, and then four days later, she is gone. That was really hard for me. On that same Tuesday, we had a family member pass away. Wednesday, Mary Alice passed away. I worked with her for a number of years. It was a lot for me.
Growing up, we had a 10-inch black and white TV. Myself and my brothers would gather around the TV at night. We were supposed to be in bed, but my mom worked during the day and went to school at night, so she left one of the neighbors in charge of making sure we got our homework done and got to bed. We would turn the volume down low. We would cover ourselves up with blankets to make a tent around the TV to muffle the sound, but invariably, she would always hear it. “I can hear that TV! Turn that TV off!”
We learned all of the lines. We used to play Star Trek by reenacting the battle scenes between the Romulans and the Klingons. At the same time we were watching that play out on television, we were watching what was happening in the Civil Rights Movement in the world. Watching people of different nationalities not be accepted. People being brutalized for the color of the skin. Yet on Star Trek, you had people of different nationalities, different species, out in space, finding a way to exist together and work together. Everyone was encouraged to be excellent.
As a kid, I thought that was the way the world was supposed to be. Nichelle represented me as a little girl. Her being the communications officer, it was her job to break things down. “Let’s do what we can to understand each other.” That’s who I wanted to be as a person.
I was quite speechless when I met her as an adult. She knew who I was, because she was watching the show A Different World and called me by name. I almost lost it, that Nichelle Nichols knew my name. I was introduced to her by two other incredible actresses, two of her lifelong friends. Ms. Beverly Todd, an amazing actor, and Ms. Judy Pace Flood, also an amazing actor. The three of them went through life, thick and thin. We are going to art showings together, poetry readings together.
Nichelle had a lot of friends who were Leos. She wasn’t a Leo, but she used her house to host Leo parties every summer. I’m seeing Walter Koenig, who I had a huge crush on, and George Takei, another one I had a crush on. We’re all there hanging out as people. I would have birthday parties, and Nichelle would be in my house. We had come to know and love and respect each other.
When I was cast in Star Trek, I told her right away. She said, “At least you’re a captain.” Because she knew I always wanted to be an alien. I wanted to be some warrior, a Klingon — somebody with all the prosthetics with a battle shield and a big sword. I think I am the second African American female captain in the Star Trek universe. Madge Sinclair was the first. Avery Brooks was Commander Sisko. Now we’ve got Sonequa Martin-Green on Discovery.
When I called after Comic-Con, she said, “I’ve got my new place in New Mexico. You have to come to the house.” I said, “Alright, as soon as this summer slows down, I’m going to come down and spend some time with you and Kyle.” Then four days later she was gone.
Nichelle was more than an actor. She was an advocate. She worked directly with NASA and really did change the face of how people are color are represented in science and in the space program. She was an incredible writer and singer and a musician. Lt. Uhura was an iconic character, but she was that and so much more.
A previous version misstated the name of Star Trek: Discovery star Sonequa Martin-Green.
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