There is a famous story about how Martin Luther King persuaded Nichelle Nichols to stay on Star Trek. One of the things he said was that if she left, they’d likely replace her character Lt. Uhura with a blonde white woman.
It turns out that one comic book series did that anyway.
I ought to have known this. At some point I did in fact know it. But at the time it must have seemed merely strange, in a comic that was not very accurately colored at the best of times. Looking back, I am genuinely disturbed.
I was reminded of this because a colleague recently made a gift to me of a used record plus comic book that she had in her collection and which would have gone to Goodwill if I were not interested in having it. I was so excited because these stories were ones that I had when I was a kid, on a combination of those smaller 45 rpm vinyl records and accompanying comics. I started flipping through it, memories coming back, and was shocked to see panels that looked like this:
In my astonishment, having a vague sense that there were things that struck me as strange about the stories even as a kid, I did what anyone nowadays would do. I turned to the internet to see who had commented on this topic. I quickly found an article that highlighted something that hadn’t yet jumped out at me: not only did these comics make Uhura white, they made Sulu black! Here’s an example of a panel from the same story that illustrates this:
What could have motivated these changes? It is as though the artist felt that it is important to have token female and black officers but it doesn’t matter which ones they are and so why not jumble those attributes around?
It is bizarre and quite appalling, and I am still not entirely sure what to make of it. I found an auction of original art from the story “The Crier in Emptiness” and it is just outlines without color, suggesting that the issue was a decision or error made further along in the production and printing process. Rudy Panucci wrote a critical response to the treatment of this subject in the volume New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics edited by Joseph F. Berenato. There is room for debate about who was to blame for this and whether the initial cause for Uhura being colored as a white blond woman and Sulu as a black man in a blue uniform was lack of familiarity with the franchise or something more deliberate and sinister. What is certain is that someone was responsible to review the comic art before it was released and either did not do so or decided that it was not worth the time and expense that would be involved to redo it. Depicting the African communications officer and the Japanese helmsman accurately was clearly not a priority for those involved in making these Star Trek comics with accompanying records. We must be indignant when we encounter something like this and not excuse it.
Of possible related interest, there was a call for retraction of articles that make arguments by appealing to Star Trek. On race and racism in churches or society in general in recent news see also the following: