February marks Black History Month, and the Star Trek franchise has always been a leader in advancing television’s sometimes-slow progress towards inclusiveness and diversity. In December, we celebrated Nichelle Nichols on her birthday, and outlined her groundbreaking role at the dawn of the Trek universe. But she was just the first of many Black actors to have traveled through the galaxy and into the hearts and minds of audiences over the years.
Trek’s Black history makers showed me, as a young kid, that Black people could and would have a future.
Being an African-American with a deep interest in history, especially Black history, I have always looked forward to February, when Black History Month is commemorated in the United States.The holiday started as Negro History Week in 1926, the creation of seminal scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson set the commemorative week in February to honor the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
One perennial theme in many Black History Month commemorations is the acknowledgment and celebration of historical firsts, key markers of social progress for a people who were, and in many unfortunate ways continue to be, shut out of the mainstream of American life. Though human racism is largely a thing of the past in Star Trek’s future, honoring and respecting human history was not.C. Edward Sharpe, StarTrek.com
He goes on to outline the importance of several of the sometimes less-celebrated in-universe characters: Commander John Mark Kelly (played by Phil Morris), Lily Sloane (Alfre Woodard), Doctors Emory Erickson (Bill Cobbs) and Richard Daystrom (William Marshall), and Captain Tryla Scott (Ursaline Bryant).
No celebration of Black history and Star Trek can overlook LeVar Burton as Geordi LaForge, Guinan as played by Whoopi Goldberg (the only Black woman and one of only sixteen people to have won the “EGOT” in competitive categories), Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko, asteroid-hunting Tim Russ as Tuvok, and of course Michael Dornas Worf.
One of the noteworthy things about Star Trek as a piece of history rather than as a story is that it struck its powerful notes of inclusion early and often throughout the development and growth of the franchise. But like any institution, some things are slower to change than others. One oversight until Picard came along was that no show in any series had ever employed a Black woman to serve as director of an episode. That changed in 2020, with Hanelle Culpepper.
This Black history month, not yet two years since the murder of George Floyd and not yet one year since the conviction of his murderer, we see that forward motion along the path to full inclusion and justice can still be rocky and uneven. With plenty of work left yet to do, we celebrate the members of the Trek community whose work broke new ground, inspired young Black children to explore their passions, and whose stories have enriched all of our lives—all while making their own contributions to the advancement of equality and justice in human society. Sometimes these contributions were quiet and underappreciated, and sometimes they were huge and impossible to ignore, going back again to the pioneering work of Nichelle Nichols and so much of the groundwork she laid, including the first interracial kiss on television.
Inevitably, for the sake of brevity, we will have overlooked some beloved actors and their characters, so please feel free to chime in on social media with some of your favorites that we may have overlooked here!