When Nichelle Nichols appeared on television screens in 1966 in “Star Trek: The Original Series,” she changed the trajectory of the American space program. Gracing the cover of Ebony in January 1967, the legacy magazine called Nichols the “most heavenly body” in the new science fiction series.
Her role as Lt. Commander Nyota Uhura left an impression on many, including my dad and uncle. Two little Black boys living in the Gowanus projects in Brooklyn, tuning into “Star Trek: The Original Series,” gave them a glimpse into the possibility of a new world beyond the concrete jungle they called home.
Fast forward 20 years plus one, my dad passed along his love of “Star Trek” to my brother and me. We faithfully watched “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” featuring the internet’s favorite uncle LeVar Burton as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge. We devoured every episode of “The Next Generation” and later “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
Star Trek’s strong Black leads offered complex portrayals, not forced representation
It’s not just that these shows gave us Black characters, but they are dynamic and complex. Newer iterations of “Star Trek ” provide even more robust storylines with diverse human and alien characters, making creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision come to life in previously unimaginable ways.
Each year it seems like some segments of various fandoms lose their minds with the introduction of strong Black characters. But this Trekkie is quite pleased to see rich storytelling led by characters who look like me.
Recognizing the importance of strong Black leads in the “Star Trek” universe felt particularly important on the first “Star Trek” Day after Nichols passed away. Through her work with NASA, Nichols paved the way for Black actors across the Star Trek universe and real-life astronauts. This year’s live stream event includes a special tribute to Nichols.
Celebrated each year on Sept. 8, Star Trek Day is an opportunity for fans to stream and engage with one of the most formidable franchises in science fiction history. The day marks the airing of the “Star Trek: The Original Series” pilot episode “The Man Trap.” Now 56 years later, the franchise spans movies, TV shows and animated series.
And while countless Black actors appear in “Star Trek” movies and animated series, including Dawnn Lewis, Paul Winfield, Alfred Woodard and Bernie Casey, this article is just focusing on the live-action series.
Here are eight phenomenal Black characters in the Star Trek Universe.
Lt. Commander Nyota Uhura first graced the television screens across the country when “Star Trek: The Original Series” aired in 1966. Pioneered by Nichols, Uhura has been played by Zoe Saldaña in the rebooted “Star Trek” movies.
Celia Rose Gooding recently stepped into the role in “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.” The 22-year-old Broadway actress shines as Cadet Nyota Uhura. Set ten years before the original series, the first season of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” digs deeper into Uhura’s earlier years.
Despite being a younger crew member, Uhura makes some outstanding contributions as she finds her way in Starfleet. Gooding takes Uhura’s brilliance to a whole new level. Did you know the character speaks 37 languages?
Dr. Joseph M’Benga
Booker Bradshaw originated the role of Dr. Joseph M’Benga in the original series. M’Benga takes on a more prominent role in “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” and has a great story arc involving his daughter Rukiya. Babs Olusanmokun currently plays him.
Played by the fantastic Soniqua Martin-Green, Captain Michael Burnham is one of the most fascinating “Star Trek” characters. Burnham has a personal connection to the iconic Mr. Spock, which is explored in season two.
A central character in “Star Trek: Discovery,” Burnham’s backstory reveals her connection to two legendary “Star Trek” characters. Orphaned after a Klingon attack, Burnham is raised on Vulcan by Ambassador Sarek and his wife Amanda Grayson, making her Spock’s adopted older sister. She is not a traditional captain by any means, offering a complex example of a person in leadership with the fate of multiple worlds at stake.
Cleveland “Book” Booker V
Another great character from “Star Trek: Discovery,” Cleveland “Book” Booker V steps into the storyline after a significant shift in the series. Played by David Ajala, Book is an empathic marauder for the greater good, righting wrongs and always ready to throw down for a good fight. He and Captain Burnham develop a strong bond throughout season three, which is put to the test in this most recent season.
Lt. Commander Joann Owosekun is another member of the excellent “Star Trek: Discover” cast. She is a fierce fighter in hand-to-hand combat, with a fantastic ability to hold her breath for an extended period.
The Sisko Family
Captain Benjamin Sisko and his family deserve an article all of their own. But for the sake of this list, they are grouped here as the Sisko family. We first meet then Commander Benjamin Sisko and his adolescent son Jake in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.”
Avery Brooks has played many roles, but Captain Sisko will forever remain one of my favorites. Brooks’ brought a new flavor to Starfleet, often cooking homemade meals for his son, partner and other crew members. Captain Sisko’s family-oriented character gave us special appearances from the late Brock Peters as his father, Joseph Sisko. The elder Sisko ran a creole restaurant in 24th-century New Orleans and had no problem making his son and grandson help out when they were back on earth.
Captain Sisko’s nurturing relationship with his son Jake, and the positive depiction of Black fatherhood, often stand out as well. Jake, played by Cirroc Lofton, respected his father greatly and wanted to see him happy. This led to his playing matchmaker with a freighter captain, Kasidy Yates, played by Penny Johnson Jerald.
Between home-cooked meals and family baseball games, the Sisko family is the “Star Trek” gift that keeps on giving. But don’t get it twisted. Captain Sisko is one of the fiercest —and arguably the best—captain in the “Star Trek” universe. Brooks’s acting was superb throughout the series, but his monologue at the end of “In the Pale Moonlight” is a masterclass.
Geordi La Forge
LeVar Burton was already a household name from his role in “Reading Rainbow” when he stepped into the shoes of Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” An engineering whiz, La Forge eventually becomes chief engineer of the Enterprise under Captain Jean-Luc Picard. Born blind, La Forge wore a special visor that enabled him to see. In later movies, his visor is upgraded to special ocular implants.
Worf, son of Mogh
Actor Michael Dorn had the honor of playing the first Klingon in Starfleet’s history. During the original series, the Klingon Empire was a nemesis of the Federation. By the time “Star Trek: The Next Generation” airs, Klingons and the Federation have maintained a certain level of peace. Lt. Commander Worf, son of Mogh, was orphaned after the Khitomer massacre and raised by a human couple.
Worf struggles with his place between his human companions in the Federation and his longing to be revered as a Klingon warrior by his peers. His character is all about duty and honor. But Worf’s idealism around Klingon virtues like honor also put him in conflict with the actualities of political life in his home world.
He later serves on Deep Space Nine under the command of Captain Sisko, where the Klingon officer really shines. Worf also has a lot of family strife, including issues with his younger brother Kurn played by “Candyman” actor Tony Todd. During his time on the Enterprise, he learns he has a son named Alexander, who is one-quarter human. Worf isn’t given the opportunity to be a father, opting to send his son to live with his adoptive parents. Both Alexander’s mother and his wife, Jadzia Dax, are murdered.
Worf’s house is disgraced at various points because he has no desire to play political games and believes in the sanctity of Klingon honor. He later becomes a member of the House of Martok, having served alongside General Martok while stationed at Deep Space Nine.